Natalie Cook is one of Australia’s greatest ever athletes having won beach volleyball gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and becoming Australia’s first female athlete to compete at five Olympic Games. She is also one of Australia’s highest profile out and proud athletes. QNews recently caught up with Nat to discuss her outstanding career, Olympic glory, homophobia in sport, and the charity work that drives her today.
When looking back on your career, the thing that really stands out is that you are the first Australian female to compete at five Olympic Games. What is the secret to spending twenty years competing at such an elite level?
I guess one of my real secrets has always been managing injuries and being good to my body. I have always been an advocate of recovery first and training second. A lot of people overtrain but I knew that I would be going for a long time and that my body would have to put up with a lot of strains so even from the beginning I always ensured that I had enough time to allow my body to recover.
Beach volleyball was still in its Olympic infancy at the start of your career. What were those early days like?
It was difficult. Competing as a female in what was then still a very new sport and one that was not very popular was tough. You’ve got the financial pressures that often stop females from competing for a long time but I was very entrepreneurial and found ways to raise funds through corporate sponsorship and other fund-raising opportunities. Not only did I have to perform at a high level but I also had to work hard to be able to fund travelling around the world for twenty years to compete.
You mentioned the fact that many female athletes struggle to attract the funding which allows them to continue competing – how difficult was it for you to give up on a physiotherapy degree in pursuit of the Olympic dream?
Well, I guess there was a lot of pressure from my family who lived in an era when it was all about your degree. My parents really wanted me to finish but I said no, this is the opportunity that I had dreamt about since I was eight years old. So I went against their wishes but, in hindsight, they came to all five Olympics with me and they have been a really important part of the journey.
You must have felt very proud of that decision when you walked away from your first Olympics in Atlanta with a bronze medal?
Yeah, I was. That was very special but it was kind of a umm… a bit bittersweet though because when we walked away with a bronze medal, we thought about how close we came to winning. I remember being partly happy and partly disappointed at missing the opportunity because who knew if I would ever get that type of opportunity again. That experience really fuelled the fire for us to go to the Sydney Olympics and win in our home country.
And of course you did win gold at the Sydney Olympics. What was it like to become an Olympic champion on Australia’s most iconic beach?
It was just a fairytale dream come true to be standing in front of your family, friends and a whole nation, having won at home. It was like magic and then I spent three Olympics trying to do that again but you could never ever recreate what happened that day on Bondi Beach.
There has been a large push in Australia over the last few years to eliminate homophobia in sport. Did you ever encounter any homophobia throughout your career?
Not really. I think that I was very lucky that I was able to surround myself with positive, inspiring, friendly people. It also helped that some of the higher profile women in the sport were gay. Not so much with the men though. When I first started out there were quite a few gay women at the top but when you’re the best in the sport, people tend not to say anything, but in the level below I think there’s a lot more gossip. I hung out a lot with the half a dozen or so gay girls on the tour because they were always in a very positive, uplifting space. They were a lot older than me but they were always welcoming and very supportive. If anything they used to talk to my partner – so Kerri was the one who would cop it.
Since ending your playing career after the 2012 London Olympics, how have you adjusted to retirement?
I have been being very entrepreneurial. After winning in Sydney the Queensland Government built a beach volleyball centre at QEII Stadium and I’ve built a business there called Sandstorm which I’ve been very busy with along with my public speaking. I also have a newfound love for health and fitness but in a different way than I did as an elite athlete. I really believe in the three health pinnacles of living longer – exercise, nutrition and self-esteem, which is why I also started my own foundation which builds on those principles.
The foundation is the “Live Out Loud Foundation” and am I correct in saying its key aim is to tackle childhood obesity and to get kids more active and knowledgeable about health?
Yes, that’s exactly it. Because the next generation are in danger of not outliving this generation – they really are facing the prospect of having shorter lives and a lot of that is related to our health and our weight. And a lot of this is tied to giving people the knowledge and self-confidence that they need.
In what ways is the foundation able to engage with kids who are more interested in playing sport on their Xbox than actually getting out on the beach volleyball court or soccer field?
We raise money then have a project called High 5 and that’s where people in the community apply for grants from the foundation to deliver childhood obesity-tackling projects in their environment. I head up one of those projects called Surf Volley which is about putting volleyball into surf clubs for the Nippers and we’ve had access to over 15,000 Nippers over the last 12 months where we can give them education on the importance of teamwork and the importance of surrounding yourself with people who will support you. We get the kids to high five even when they make mistakes because it really is all about having self-esteem. Not just in sport but in everything, irrespective of whether you’re gay or straight or whatnot, it’s about how you can walk through the world with your head proudly held high and that’s why we call it Live Out Loud.
People can see some of your work up close this month at the Brisbane Fitness & Health Expo. What will you be doing there?
We have a stall at the expo where we can help educate parents and kids about nutrition and self-esteem but most importantly we will be on the main stage both on Saturday and Sunday to talk about nutrition with our celebrity chef Dominique Rizzo, who will be doing some cooking demonstrations because when you know more, that’s when people want to become involved. We’ve got quite a big role at the expo and it’s going to be really exciting!
You can catch Natalie Cook at the Brisbane Fitness & Health Expo on 24-25 October at the Brisbane Convention Centre. For more information about the Live Out Loud Foundation, check out liveoutloudfoundation.com.au.