After almost 30 years out of the sport, the Luton AC athlete got herself fit again during lockdown and now holds UK W50 records from 100m to 800m
Sally Cooke has been nothing short of a revelation in 2022. She has set British records in the W50 age group at 100m (13.06), 200m (26.27), 400m (57.55) and 800m (2:14.56), with her 400m mark also being a world record. Before 2021 she was virtually unknown in athletics circles, either. So where has she come from?
Born in April 1970, she almost shares a birthday with Kelly Holmes. Both were talented teenage athletes, too, with Cooke running 11.9 for 100m under her maiden name of Vickers in her mid-teens off barely any training while growing up in Lancaster.
But whereas Holmes went on to win Olympic golds at the 2004 Olympics, Cooke quit athletics aged 16 to do a hairdressing apprenticeship before going travelling and then starting a degree in fashion and textiles in London. “I didn’t do any sport from aged 16-45,” she remembers.
For years she barely gave athletics a thought. But when her children, Bluebell and Archie, joined Stevenage Athletics Club it stirred some old memories. She also felt the urge to keep warm!
“I was sitting in the stands freezing with a blanket over my legs watching them,” she says. “So I asked if I could run around the edge of the track. Then I thought ‘should I join a group?’ and I joined in with a sprint group.”
Impressed with her ability, club officials twisted her arm to do some low-key competitions in 2016. Then lockdown struck.
“I carried on running every day with Bluebell and when the tracks reopened I was shocked how fit I was. I was keeping up with the young ones and I began to feel like I did when I was a teenager.”
In 2021 she smashed the 60 seconds barrier for 400m a number of times, but 2022 has seen her improve even more aged 52. The secret of her success, she feels, is training with friendly and supportive middle-distance runners from Luton AC. “I run more reps now but not flat out,” she says. “It’s far easier on my calf muscles than doing flat-out speedwork.”
Re-born as an athlete, she is enjoying the ride. “My Garmin tells me I have a ‘fitness age’ of 20 and a local gym (Xchange Fitness in Hitchin) has given me free membership,” she says. “Now this award (masters athlete of the year) from AW, too. It’s brilliant!”
Next year she wants to run a sub-13 seconds 100m and dreams of clocking 56 seconds for 400m. She has no real ambition of going to major championships, though. “I don’t think I’d enjoy it,” she says. “I get too nervous.”
But does she ever wonder what might have been if she hadn’t quit aged 16? “There’s a little thing inside me that thinks I could have ‘made it’ if I’d had the right circumstances,” she says. “But I’m back now and really enjoying it.”
» This article first appeared in the December issue of AW magazine