by Max Foster
roundup staff reporter
Growing up on the Hopi reservation in Northern Arizona, one of Tom Cooka's daily chores was to round up the family horses on foot. The running it took to accomplish those tasks eventually led to a lifetime love of the sport for the 71-year-old Payson resident.
After starring at Winslow High School, for the Northland Pioneer College track team and as a long-distance runner competing unattached, Cooka retired from his Santa Fe Railroad career and moved to Payson.
Since that move in 1991, Cooka has competed in just about every 5K and 10K event that rolls around.
Most recently, Cooka realized a lifelong dream by winning a gold medal in the National Senior Olympics held last week in Baton Rouge, La.
"When I was younger, I always wanted to go to the Olympics and win a gold, but I never was able to do it," Cooka said.
Winning the senior first-place medal, he said, helped him achieve that Olympic dream.
"I finally did it," he said. "I've been wanting to do that a long time."
In copping first in the 70-to 74-year age group, Cooka dominated the competition winning by about four minutes. He was timed in 47:59.01 and runner-up Nathan Quinn of Florida was clocked in 51:50.80.
One of the reasons for his relatively easy win, he said, was because many of his competitors wilted in the 88-degree heat that includedhumidity over 90 percent. The sweltering conditions, he said, didn't adversely affect his performance over the 6.2-mile course that wound around a lake on the Louisiana State University campus.
Cooka qualified for his appearance in the Senior Olympics by winning the Arizona State 10K Senior run last fall at Sun City West.
After qualifying, he set about training for what would be is fourth trip to the Senior Olympics
His best previous showing was a fifth-place finish in the 1996 5K run. Those efforts and the win in Baton Rouge have served to whet his appetite for even more Olympic competition.
His goal now, he said, is to qualify for the next National Senior Olympics to be held in 2003 in Hampton, Va. Since he would remain in the same age bracket, Cooka would be an odds on favorite to repeat as the Olympic champion.