Stephanie Cook was catapulted into the limelight at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games when she took gold in the first Women's Olympic Modern Pentathlon, winning an 11th gold for Great Britain in the process. It was a spectacular victory. Always a strong cross country runner (in her last Varsity match she crossed the line a clear minute before her closest competitor), the pressure was on as she took her place for the start of the 3,000 metres. She was in 8th place, trailing the American leader, Emily de Reil, by 49 seconds and her own team mate Kate Allenby by 44. It was a breathtaking race, suspense rising as it became clear that Cook was gaining on the de Reil, a fellow old Oxonian, and in the last 250 metres she passed her, taking both the race and the gold.
Cook went on to take 3 golds in the World Championships, which were held in Millfield School, in Somerset, in July 2001, and was awarded an MBE for her service to the Modern Pentathlon. Before she announced her retirement from the sport, aged 29. Not bad, considering that she had only taken up the sport on her arrival at Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1995.
Stephanie Cook was born in Irvine in 1972, and despite moving to Bedford in 1974 she still considers herself as a Scot "I've always considered myself Scottish, even though my English accent provokes a few laughs when I say that. I've always supported Scotland in sport, be it in rugby, football or whatever." She joined the local pony club (which gave her valuable experience in horse riding), but at this stage the primary focus of her life was academic. She gained 11 O Grades and 3 'A's at A Level in Biology, Chemistry and Maths, which led her logically into medicine. The first three years of her degree course were spent at Peterhouse, College Cambridge. Here she became involved in running and rowing (following her sister who was awarded a blue for coxing) and in 1993 she captained the lightweights. She was also chapel secretary and sang in the college choir. A stress fracture to her wrist forced her to give up rowing and led her to take up her running seriously.
Running was her main sport when she started at Lincoln, but a notice in the college lodge prompted her to try the demanding all-round discipline of the Modern Pentathlon. This was a challenge, because despite her background in riding and running, she had to learn both shooting and fencing from scratch. Despite this, the Pentathlon, which had begun as an adjunct to her running swiftly became her main discipline. This was partly a result of her success, "That and the social aspect: they were such a great bunch of people"
She was approached by the British selectors and she had an international vest before she left Oxford. However, she found it increasingly difficult to reconcile her rigorous training schedule with the equally demanding position as a junior doctor and in September 1999 she eventually decided to put her medical career on hold and take Lottery funding (Â£18,000). She also wanted to give herself "the chance to pursue my sport for a few years to see what I could achieve."
Stephanie Cook's capacity for single minded dedication and determination to a given task is often noted and suggested as the key to her success both in sport and in medicine. Perhaps without this aptitude for hard graft "what I could achieve" would not have been anything like so far. Her decision to take time out from medicine allowed her to apply this dedication entirely to her sport and she followed a gruelling 8 hour a day training schedule. Her training and dedication were rewarded. However, the impact of the events of the Olympics was enormous and she felt the reverberations in every area of her life. Compared to de Reil, who received only "a little local attention", Cook became an instant celebrity. She was recognised in the street and within a week of her return to the UK she had appeared on A Question of Sport. This was only the first of many television, radio and personal appearances.
Dealing with overnight fame is no easy task, but Stephanie Cook has had her faith to help her keep her feet on the ground. She has been a committed Christian since she was 17 and regards her sporting abilities as a gift from God, which it is her responsibility to develop with His guidance. Despite her hectic schedule she tries to always make time for God in her life and she values the support of other Christians.
So it is fitting that she cites Eric Liddell (immortalised in Chariots of Fire) as one of her heroes and an inspiration. She was given a copy of The Flying Scotsman by a friend, who had inscribed it "to the flying Scotswoman", and she says that she "drew inspiration from Eric Liddell, not just because of what he achieved but how he went about it." After the Paris Olympics Liddell retired from athletics and went to work as a missionary in a little known area of China, where he died, age 43, in a Japanese POW camp.
Cook has a similar sense of the need to do more and belief that her sporting talents are not her only gifts. She also believes that these gifts are not necessarily mutually exclusive, "There is a good link between competitive sport at the top level and working in accident and emergency", as both depend on an ability to perform in high pressure situations. She has always maintained her intention to return to medicine and after her retirement from sport she took up her position as a senior house officer in the accident and emergency department of a hospital. This is the first 6 month stint of her 2 1/2 year surgical rotation, which will include time in the orthopaedic ward, general surgery and ear, nose and throat operations.
Before this and only two days after her victory at the World Championships Cook flew out to Gujarat, India, for eight days. She went at the invitation of the British charity, Merlin, which provides emergency medical relief. In Gurjarat, the charity is working to restore healthcare in the Kutch district, which has been devastated by the worst earthquake for 50 years, in which 20, 000 people died. However, before this, she had already spent her gap year working as a volunteer with the Israeli ambulance service, in Jerusalem. Also, while she was at Cambridge she spent a summer vacation in Uganda.
Medicine remains her vocation and she is glad to be able to use her sporting success, in her own words, "to do something useful."