Cook happy to be off the court, but still aiming to influence beach volleyball
For the first time since 1993, Natalie Cook will not be gearing up for the start of the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour. The five-time Olympian tells VolleyWorld about her memories of life on tour, how much she will miss it and what she has planned for the future.
Cook called it a day following the London 2012 Olympic Games. She and her partner Tamsin Hinchley were unable to make it to the knockout rounds, but in no way did that diminish her achievement of becoming the first beach volleyball player to play in five Olympic Games.
In fact she has played in every Olympics in which beach volleyball featured; from its debut at Atlanta in 1996 to glory on the golden sands of Bondi Beach at Sydney 2000 when she and Kerri Pottharst became Olympic champions on home turf. Then came a fourth place at Athens 2004, fifth at Beijing 2008 and one last hurrah in front of 15,000 fans at Horse Guard’s Parade in London.
While there is part of her that will miss the daily grind of training and travel, the 2000 Olympic champion is happy to just be focusing her considerable energy on developing the sport in her homeland, Australia.
“My heart will always beat to the beach volleyball drum, so when it is FIVB season time then I will feel it,” Cook told VolleyWorld. “I love the thrill of the competition, the whistle blowing, the score flipping over, and the cat and mouse game with my opponents. Our game is a physical, mental and emotional challenge, not only with your opponent but with yourself and your partner.
“I will miss the atmosphere of the Tour, the competition, and the friendships I have developed over my time. I have played against and alongside some of the best beach volleyball players of all time; Liz Masakayan, Isabel and Roseli of Brazil, Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, Jackie Silva and Sandra Pires, and alongside Kerri Pottharst, Nicole Sanderson and Tamsin Hinchley.”
The Brisbane-native made her debut in the 1993-94 season when she and Anita Spring finished sixth at the Santos Open in Brazil. In the 1994-95 season she teamed up with Pottharst for the first time. The pair played through till the end of the 1997 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Los Angeles and along the way they showed their ability to be competitive at the top level when they won bronze at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.
They reunited following the 1999 World Championships and showed they were already close to their best with two silver medals at their first two tournaments back together, the Espinho and Osaka Opens. Another three bronze medals came their way before their crowning glory on home sand in 2000.
In 2003 Cook teamed up with Sanderson and later that year they won bronze at the World Championships in Rio de Janeiro. Twelve months on and with Cook struggling with a shoulder injury they finished with a highly creditable fourth-place finish at Athens 2004. Cook reached the quarterfinals with Hinchley in Beijing and then after a short time apart, they teamed up again for one last assault on the Olympics in London.
Now back in Australia, Cook is putting her energy into spreading the word of beach volleyball. She has been an outspoken critic of most public beaches’ policy of banning ball sports, arguing that with beaches as pristine and numerous as they have in Australia, there should be no reason why her country shouldn’t be producing teams as strong as Brazil and the USA.
Instead, she has built up her company Sandstorm, whose aim is to spread the gospel of beach volleyball in schools, universities and businesses. It is also committed to building beach pits across the country to give young Australians the chance to follow in her and Pottharst’s footsteps.
“We are engaging in some ground breaking projects,” Cook said. “The most exciting is a programme called "surf volley" that incorporates our iconic Aussie surf lifesaving clubs and a community club atmosphere to include beach volleyball in the activities that young kids aged 7 to 14 participate in each week. This will be crucial to our grass roots development and give us a larger population of volleyballers to choose from to represent our country.
“The other area in Sandstorm that I think is imperative to the growth and sustainability of our sport is the construction of sandpits. That is more facilities and venues that are off beach, so that they can be permanent venues. Over 20 years I have seen millions and millions of dollars washed away in temporary stadiums and we have nothing to show for it today.
“We need more permanent stadiums, like tennis. Only then will beach volleyball truly stamp its authority on the sporting landscape.”
Cook’s passion for beach volleyball and her desire to see its popularity grow further is not limited solely to her homeland. Her five Olympic Games and nearly 20 years on the FIVB World Tour has given her the chance to see where beach volleyball stands in the pantheon of world sports.
Although the sport has grown exponentially since its introduction into the Olympic Games 17 years ago - most notably in the size and reach of the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour - she still feels that there is further room for growth.
“Volleyball has prided itself on its mass participation around the world and the fact that it reaches every corner of the globe is inspiring. Beach volleyball is no exception,” Cook said. “To be competing across all five confederations is imperative for the sport to continue to grow and break through to the next level.”