A champion, stroke for stroke
2019 UNE Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient
Strength is often forged in the intense heat of fire. And so it was for accomplished athlete and UNE Distinguished Alumni Sarah Cook in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics.
Having already won several World Rowing Championship and World Cup medals, the eight-time Australian champion was training hard for the pairs event, determined to secure that most elusive of sporting rewards, an Olympic gold.
But rather than investing in its elite female athletes, Rowing Australia was scaling back its women's program. "I was one of only four women on scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport, whereas there were 12 men in the rowing program, and there was no attempt being made to grow the female squad," Sarah says.
Then Rowing Australia decided not to consider trialling to select a women's eight to contest the qualification trials for the London games. It was a decision that transformed a disheartened Sarah into a vocal advocate for gender equity. She subsequently sidelined her own personal aspirations to join what the media dubbed the 'Motley Crew' and campaigned for the women’s eight to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
"It was one of those moments when you realise that sport is bigger than the individual," Sarah says. "I knew we had the talent to do well, and I'm very passionate about the development of the next generation of female rowers, and women's sport in general."
The Motley Crew went on to win the Olympic qualification regatta and make the Olympic final in London, vindicating their highly publicised stance. And it proved a major turning point in Sarah's life."We were inundated with messages from women thanking us for what we had done for them and their daughters," she says. "Pleasingly, Rowing Australia now offers equal funding and support for men and women, and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics will see gender parity for rowing events for the first time in Olympic history."
While Sarah decided to retire after the London campaign, there was yet another chapter to be written in her sporting biography - she promptly took up sailing and represented Australia for the next three years. "I'd never sailed before, but it was awesome," she says. "It was an amazing opportunity to enjoy a different challenge."
To support herself, Sarah returned to rowing as a coach, and became the first female senior sporting coach at the all-boys GPS school St Josephs College, in Sydney."I was able to help those athletes take their next steps into the national rowing system and Australian teams, to help them achieve their dreams," says Sarah, who was later appointed the school's Head of Rowing (responsible for 180 athletes and 25 coaches) and became the first female Master-in-Charge of Rowing in the history of GPS competition.
But, once again, it was not all smooth sailing.
"It was a baptism of fire," Sarah says. "Old boys would often ask 'wasn't there a man for the job?' but I was unfazed. In my first year at St Joeys we won Head of the River for the first time in 42 years and went on to enjoy another two very successful years before I left to become the Operations Manager for Australian Sailing."
Sarah's list of pioneering achievements in high-performance coaching and administration - across rowing and sailing - is almost as impressive as her competition results. Her appointment as the men’s coxed four crew coach for the World Rowing Junior Championships in 2016 made her only the second woman in the history of Australian Rowing to coach a men's crew. The same year she also became the first female president of the Sydney University Boat Club, after its historic amalgamation with the Women's Rowing Club.
Various voluntary roles ensued, among them Director of Rowing NSW and Councillor for Rowing Australia. Sarah also took on a commentary role at the world-famous Henley Royal Regatta in the UK and, in 2018, was named a steward of the regatta - becoming only the third Australian and the first female to receive this lifelong honour.
All the while, this passionate advocate for youth development, health and gender equality in sport completed a Bachelor of Applied Science and then, at UNE, her Graduate Diploma in Education.
Sarah describes her current role, as Head Rowing Coach and Athlete Development Coordinator at Kinross Wolaroi School in Orange, as "deeply fulfilling". "It's very rewarding seeing kids enjoying sport with their mates at every level, having their own goals and competing to the best of their ability, and enjoying all the benefits that sport brings," Sarah says.
Even through the disappointments? "I don't have an Olympic medal, and that's something I really believed I was capable of achieving at the London Olympics, however the campaign for the women's eight crew gave me an opportunity to do something meaningful with lasting impact," Sarah says. "It made me who I am, and it was the start of a conversation that's continuing and only getting louder about equal parity in sport."
For more information about the 2019 Alumni Awards