While many athletes have trained for years to compete in wheelchair events at the Paralympics, one Paralympian believes her training is the only thing keeping her out of a wheelchair.
Carol Cooke has multiple sclerosis.
She was a gold medal winning T2 cyclist in London and now she is looking to defend her road time-trial title in Rio.
“When I was diagnosed I was told I would never do sport again,” she says. “I was also told my life was over as I knew it, and to put my affairs in order before I became incapacitated. That was 18 years ago.”
Cooke spent a year in a wheelchair in 2002 before slowly rediscovering exercise.
The 55-year-old says her training has been critical to keeping her MS symptoms at bay.
“I think it’s really important — it’s keeping me walking,” she says.
“I’m such an advocate for people who have multiple sclerosis exercising and, to be honest, I don’t care how disabled you are.
“Even if you can’t use your arms or legs you can always get a life jacket on, your carer can put you in the water.
“Just having your arms and legs your limbs moving fires the neurons.”
Cooke believes she is the perfect case study for the benefits of exercise for MS sufferers.
Two years ago she crashed her bike and suffered a concussion.
She had to stop training for five days — long enough to feel herself regressing.
“I had tremors back in my legs everything was tightening up and I said I have to get up and do something because this is MS creeping back in and the last thing I wanted to do was end up back in a wheelchair,” Cooke says.
Now she is about to compete at her second Paralympics and her coaches think she is more than ready to defend her gold medal in Rio.
“I think she’s considerably better now,” says Ben Willey, her conditioning coach at the Victorian Institute of Sport.
“Her bike is more technically proficient now her position [on the bike] is better … but I think physically too she’s in probably the best shape she’s ever been in.”
Cooke competes on a tricycle which offers greater stability, but cycling coach Rebecca Dicello said that does not make it easier to ride.
“It’s very difficult because you’ve got to put your balance on the opposite side of the bike than what you normally would if you were riding two wheels.”
Much of Cooke’s grinding daily gym routine at the VIS is to improve her core strength and stability to better handle the tricycle.
“When she corners and stuff on the trike she does get pushed a lot to the side so she has to be able to stabilise through her hips and through her trunk,” says Willey.
This may be Cooke’s last Paralympics, but she says her training is for life.
“I don’t know what the future holds after Rio but I will always do something,” she says. “I will always ride, I will always swim, I will always be in the gym to make sure my body knows it’s still got a job to do.”