A 77-year-old Rim Country long distance runner has won the prestigious APS Power Player Award.
Tom Cooka received the coveted prize July 21, following the competition of cross country event at the Lori Piestewa National Native American Games, held near Fountain Hills.
"It was a great honor, I had no idea I was going to receive it," Cooka said.
"When I heard my name called, I was so surprised."
Cooka was chosen for the honor by Piestewa game officials who said he met the criteria of an "individual who demonstrates exceptional character and sportsmanship" and who "displays extraordinary character as defined by the six pillars of character -- trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship."
In the Native American Games, Cooka ran his way to a third-place finish in the 5K race, while competing against some runners 25 years younger.
"They didn't have enough (runners) in the older age groups, so everyone over about 50-years-old was lumped together in one (age division)," Cooka said.
To compete in the Piestewa games, participants must be at least one-quarter Native American.
Cooka, who grew up on a Northern Arizona reservation, is a member of the Hopi tribe.
The retired Santa Fe Railroad employee is no stranger on local or national racing scenes.
He competes in about every town-sponsored 5K race, has been a highly successful competitor on the Senior Olympics racing circuit and as a 58-year-old, was a member of the Northland Pioneer College track team, along with his son.
Cooka remembers his introduction to long distance running coming as a young boy, who was asked to round up the family's horses on foot.
"A long time ago," he said.
For Cooka, next on the running agenda is an appearance in the P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll marathon in January 2008.
"I'm going to run the full marathon this year," he said.
Last year, Cooka finished first in the Rock 'n' Roll half-marathon, touring the Phoenix area course 2:00.2.
Two years ago, he was second in his 75-79-years age group in 2:04.18.
Games draw thousands
At the Piestewa games, which are affiliated with the Grand Canyon State Games, Cooka was one of about 2,000 athletes who participated.
Events included boxing, adult basketball, youth basketball, adult softball, track and field, weightlifting and cross country.
In previous years, the games were held mostly in Flagstaff and other Northern Arizona towns.
This year, they were moved to Fountain Hills High School, Notre Dame Prep, Gilbert and the Fort McDowell reservation.
Grand Canyon State and Piestewa Games executive director Erik Widmark called the competition "a fitting tribute to Lori and all of our fallen soldiers."
Cooka's winning the Piestewa/ Grand Canyon State/ APS award wasn't the first state recognition local Native American athletes have received.
In the fall of 2000, the Tonto Apache Track and Field teams were selected the Grand Canyon State's Male and Female Athletes of the Year.
That following spring, Tonto track team coach Billy Joe Winchester was the recipient of the Arizona Governor's Council on Health, Physical Fitness and Sports Outstanding Leadership Award.