Tom C. Cooka is no stranger to publicity. The soon-to-be 73-year-old Cooka has competed in five National Senior Olympics. The honors he has accumulated in that time have brought him into the public eye quite a few times.
He returned to the National Senior Olympics this year, competing earlier this month in the Virginia Beach area of Virginia. He earned a spot in the nationals by winning his track events at the state level in late February and March. Spots in the national contest are earned by taking first and second places, or meeting the qualifying times in the State Senior Olympics.
"I always win. I'm the defending champ," Cooka said.
In the nationals, Cooka ran the 800 and 1500 meters, plus the 5K and 10K road races. There were 30 runners in the 800 preliminaries, only eight would compete in the finals. Cooka made the cut, then took seventh place in the 800 finals. The same day he ran the 1500 meters with a field of about 30 and took fifth place.
"The more I run, the better I get. I like long distance races," he explained.
The 5K road race had about 25 runners, and Cooka took another fifth place. After a day of rest, he ran the 10K road race and won a bronze medal. Two years ago, at the last National Senior Olympics, held in Baton Rouge, La., Cooka won the gold medal in the 10K.
Cooka runs different races around the state: a series in Phoenix, plus Senior Olympics contests in Flagstaff and Prescott. Last year he competed in the first Native American Grand Canyon State Games in Flagstaff and won six gold medals, including one for shot put.
"I'd only practiced for four days before the games," he said, "I had learned how to do it in high school, so I knew how to throw it. They use a new technique now though, where you spin around and gain momentum before you throw. One of the little girls on the Tonto Apache Tribe was doing shot put, using the same weight ball as me. I didn't think she was going to do too well. But she did that spinning thing and threw it further than I did," he said, laughing and covering his face, still a little embarrassed by his overconfidence. As for all those gold medals, he sheepishly admits he was the only contestant in his age group in most of the events.
Cooka will again take part in the Native American Grand Canyon State Games in Flagstaff next month.
The life-long athlete said he tries to run 40 to 45 miles every week. "I vary it. I do hill running one day, then take a day of rest. I work out on the track for speed, then rest a day. Then I do a long, slow run of about 10 miles, then rest two days."
Running is not something Cooka picked up as a way to spend his retirement after 39 years and six months with the Santa Fe Railroad.
"I started when I was 5-1/2 and my dad woke me up and told me it was going to be my job to get the horses everyday."
Cooka is a full Hopi, and his family ranched near Keams Canyon, Ariz. when he was small. The horses were kept about four miles from the house. He said he would get up every morning and run to get the horses, round them up and run with them back to the house.
The family left the ranch in 1941, moving to Winslow because the Santa Fe Railroad had asked his father to come back to work for them. Cooka said because of the war, everyone was needing workers.
Cooka attended high school in Winslow. He was on the track team and played basketball. "There were only two classes (in state high school athletics) then. ‘A' was for all the big schools in Phoenix and everybody else was in ‘B'. I was top dog in Class B for all of Northern Arizona," Cooka said.
Only about a week after he finished high school, Cooka went into the Air Force. He was a radio airborne operator during the Korean War.
"I was only home three days and went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad as a telegrapher," he said.
Over the almost 40 years he spent with the railroad, he worked all over the state in an impressive array of jobs.
Cooka said all during his years in the service and with the Santa Fe Railroad, he continued to run. And when most people start thinking about retirement, Cooka went to college and became a college athlete.
"I believe education was the most important thing my dad taught me ... My dad emphasized education was the key to whatever you did when you grew up. He didn't have much of an education himself."
Cooka was 58 when he started attending Northland Pioneer College in Winslow. They had a cross country team and he asked the coach if he could be on it.
The coach said athletes had to carry a full load of classes and could only earn a spot on the team through a 10K try-out.
"The try-out was on a rainy day. It was raining cats and dogs and there was about three inches of water standing on the track. The other guys trying out said they wouldn't run in it and so it was going to rescheduled. I lived in Flagstaff and the try-out was in Holbrook." Cooka said he would run, he had driven all the way from Flagstaff to do the try-out. So, the coach agreed to let him run and one of the others said he would run with him. The other athlete was about 19. The 10K was two laps around the track.
The young man stayed ahead of him, "But I kept him in sight." After one lap the young guy gave it up, but Cooka did the second lap and earned his spot on the team.
So, at 58, Cooka was working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., going to school every night of the week and going to weekend meets. In some of those weekend meets, one of his competitors was one of his own sons. Cooka said he didn't lose many of his college races, but when he ran against his son, the young man was not about to let his father beat him.
Cooka and his first wife had six children, four sons and two daughters. "I made sure all six had a college education. What they did with it afterward was up to them," he said.
He also gave them his love of running.
"They all ran. They were always in sports. It kept them out of trouble. The girls were cheerleaders, played volleyball and basketball, were in track and cross country."
Although he will have his 73rd birthday June 28, don't look for the July Native American Grand Canyon State Games to be Cooka's last hurrah.
"I enjoy the competition and the camaraderie and it feels good to see these people along in years who are able to compete.
"At these last games, there were people in their 80s doing the pole vault. Women in their 90s were in both the 5K and 10K. There was one lady who was totally blind and used a seeing eye dog and she was in the 1500 meters and the 5K. She won a third place in the 5K. I've been to five nationals and each time I see this. Nothing is holding back these people."
Cooka feels he has been blessed in his life. So, he has chosen to serve God through his work with the Rim Valley Church of God. Cooka has taught Sunday school for the shut-ins at Manzanita Manor for the past seven years.
"I'm a Christian and I would not be able to do any of this without God. It's a natural talent God has given me. And so I give Him all the credit," Cooka said.
Name: Tom Cruz Cooka
Occupation: Retired, but does part-time residential landscaping and yard work.
Employer: Santa Fe Railroad for 39 years and six months; self
Age: 72, turning 73 on June 28
Birthplace: Keams Canyon, Ariz.
Family: Wife, Melba; six children; 13 grandchildren.
Personal motto: Whatever you do, do it right, do the best you can and finish it.
Inspiration: Jesus Christ
Greatest feat: Giving my children the opportunity to get an education and making sure they did.
Favorite hobby or leisure activity: Oil painting.
The three words that describe me best are count on me.
I don't want to brag but ... I can see good in everyone.
Person in history I'd most like to meet: Jesus Christ
Luxury defined: Peace of mind
Dream vacation spot: This is God's country. Why would I want to go anywhere else?
Why Payson? The altitude is great for running, the small-town atmosphere is nice, the pine trees and we have all the seasons, but none are severe.