ON paper, Gillian Cooke should qualify for the Commonwealth Games long jump with ease.
In reality, the 31-year-old from Edinburgh faces a race against time if she is going to compete on home soil this summer.
The qualifying distance for the Scotland team is six metres 20 centimetres – well within the range of a woman whose personal best is 6:43. But Cooke jumped that distance six years ago, since when her career has taken more than a few twists and turns.
It was in 2008, in fact, that she took up bobsleigh, the sport at which she became world champion the following year. The two disciplines have a lot in common, above all the need for speed and power, but they are far from a perfect fit. Hence the race against time: while other track-and-field athletes spent the winter preparing for their outdoor season, Cooke was trying to qualify for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
In the end, the attempt was unsuccessful, through no fault of her own. “I was disappointed not to be selected,” Cooke said. “I thought I’d done enough to justify being selected as a reserve, so to be told the major grounds for not taking me were age was very disappointing. The idea was I had been there and done that. They said if it had been for a racing position the decision might have gone the other way, but because it was for the reserve place they wanted to give somebody else the chance.
“I’m 31, and I feel I’ve got another Olympic cycle in me. It’s whether I’ll be given the opportunity. I’ll have a bit of a cooling-off period then see where it goes from there. I’ve got absolutely nothing against the athletes – it’s not their decision. I’ve worked with them for three or four years, and I continued to support them and hoped they’d do their best in Sochi. I was glued to it all on television. There were so many friends from other countries to support too – it’s a close-knit sport. But I’ve moved on from there. I suppose if I had gone as reserve I would have got the whole Olympic experience, but it would have taken a month off the opportunity I’ve got to qualify for Glasgow. So there are positives I can take from it.”
Those positives began to arrive within a week of Cooke’s bobsleigh season ending, as her return to athletics competition gave her an understanding of the shape she was in, and how much she will need to improve to get into the Scotland team. “I came home from the European Bobsleigh Championships and competed six days later in the long jump at the Scottish Championships, first of all to see where I was. If everything went absolutely perfectly there was a chance of getting a qualifying distance in, but it was mainly a fact-finding mission.
“In long jump you’ve got six attempts in about an hour, so it’s a whole different fitness that you need from bobsleigh. I got to about round four in the Scottish Champs and my neural system was shutting down. It’s not used to those movements, that intensity of movement, in close proximity. I jumped well enough at the Scottish Champs to qualify for the British there, and I finished eighth, having gone in ranked ninth. Given the circumstances, that was quite positive. There’s a lot to work on, and I’ve just spent the last few weeks getting back into proper long-jump training.”
So far, that training is going well. “This is the first year since 2008 I’ve come back off a bobsleigh season healthy. The 6.08 I jumped at the Scottish Champs is my best jump since 2008. I’d hope to go a lot further, and I’m looking forward to coming out again and having another crack at it. The main pressure this year is time. I’m going to have a five-week window to qualify, and if you’re not a junior or a student there are not a lot of meetings in the UK over that period. I’d hope I can be in good enough shape so I can come out and jump the distance every time – it’s just fingers crossed for the weather.
“You need two qualifying distances, one of which can be indoors. If I can get that one in over the next few weeks, that will take some of the pressure off. I’m under no illusions that qualifying is going to be easy, but as long as I stay injury-free there’s no reason why I can’t do it. Even the weather thing – I’ve jumped 6.39 in eight degrees in May at Scotstoun, so it doesn’t matter if it’s cold. I’m used to that now.”
Although she was unable to compete in Delhi four years ago because of injury, Cooke has a long association with the Commonwealth Games. “I only started athletics in 1999, and it was the Commonwealth Youth Games in Edinburgh the following year that persuaded me to take it seriously,” she said. “In the athletes’ village at those games there was a leaflet on everybody’s bed advertising the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002, and I thought ‘I’m going to be there’.
“I’m not sure if anyone else believed I would qualify for it, but I did. That was a great experience, to be there as a 19-year-old and have almost the atmosphere of a home games. Melbourne was different entirely, but again a fantastic atmosphere. Now Glasgow should be brilliant.”