A man who spent his childhood rounding up the family's herd of horses while on foot has won six gold medals at the inaugural Grand Canyon State Native American Games.
Payson retiree Tom Cooka won the medals at the games held last week on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
On hand at the games were Native American athletes representing most all of Arizona's tribes.
Prior to the games, the 72-year-old Cooka prepared for participation in seven events shot-put, 200-meter dash, 5K run, 1,500 meters, 800 meters, 400 meters and 1,500-meter walk.
By the time the awards ceremony took place in NAU's Lawrence Walkup Skydome, Cooka had staked claim to gold medals in all except the 1,500 meters.
Cooka says he might have won a seventh medal, but he opted to step out of the 1,500 meters after one lap because he realized he needed to conserve his energy for a run at a first-place finish in the 200 meters.
That event was to be contested almost immediately after the 1,500.
Because he is known mostly as a long-distance runner, winning a sprint like the 200 meters, was Cooka's goal before the games began.
Another first for Cooka was his entry into the shot-put competition.
It's not often that a highly acclaimed runner who's experienced considerable success on the college level and in Senior Olympics cross trains into a throwing events. But Cooka was looking for new challenges.
"I borrowed a shot-put from (Payson High School track and field coach) Chuck Hardt to practice with," Cooka said.
A few days of learning the techniques necessary to throw the shot-put was all it took for Cooka to pick up enough skills to win first place in the 70- to 74-years-old age division.
Cooka admits throwing the shot is vastly different than cross country running, but says he was encouraged by how well he fared in his first attempt at the event. But because throwing the shot-put requires much more body mass than long distance running, he's not sure he'll put much more training into the event.
How it all began
Cooka's running dedication began as a young lad, when it was his responsibility to corral the horses that fed in a pasture located miles from the family's ranch home near Winslow. He said he spent each morning and evening rounding up the animals on foot.
As a member of the Hopi tribe, Cooka eventually starred in track and field at Winslow High School and Northland Pioneer College.
His college career came late in life after he had spent more than two decades building a career with the Santa Fe railroad.
Due to his age (58 years) while competing for Northland, he became something of a novelty on the collegiate athletic scene and was frequently the subject of media attention.
After his retirement, Cooka moved to Payson where he is now a fixture in local long-distance runs.
Only last Friday, Cooka ran his way to a fourth-place finish in the Monsoon 5K run held at Green Valley Park. He said his time of 23:11 was better than he expected.
In the spring, he won three gold and two silver medals at the Arizona State Senior Olympics in the Valley.
On the national scene, Cooka has traveled the United States the past 20 years representing the Rim country in Senior Olympic events,
Although he's competed in about every athletic venue possible, he says the GC Native American Games were unique in that they allowed tribe members, young and old alike, to wage friendly competition against one another.
Among his memories of the inaugural games was watching an older Navajo woman win five gold medals and the Tonto Apache track and field squad stake claim to the games championship.
With his first GC games behind him, Cooka said he will be competing again next summer.
"I enjoyed them so much the first time," he said. "I wouldn't miss them."