TOWSON, Md. - The athlete that conquers the heptathlon, a collection of seven track and field events, must be, by definition, one who can manage, change and adapt to twists and turns and come out successful on the other side.
Jessica Cooke may not have started out her athletic journey in that venue, but her ability to adjust to whatever has been thrown at her and triumph makes her a nearly perfect candidate for the jumps, runs and throws of the heptathlon.
To wit, in her time at Towson, Cooke has battled mononucleosis and the swine flu, added new events to her repertoire and spent a semester studying in China just as her athletic career was about to take off.
Somehow, Cooke, a senior from Lexington Park, Md., has survived and even thrived to become not only a mainstay of the Tigers’ indoor and outdoor track teams, but sixth all-time in the program’s history in heptathlon points.
That Cooke is even in track is one of those odd turns of fate. Her family is big into soccer, so much so that her older brother, Jason, played at Pitt and coached at Air Force. Her older sister, Heather, not only played at Loyola, but is a member of the Philippines national team.
Cooke said she played soccer at Leonardtown High School on two state championship teams, but ran track to stay in shape for soccer at her sister’s urging.
Along the way, she fell in love with track, and especially the jumping competitions. She did well in the high jump immediately as a freshman, though she knew nothing of the event when she started.
Eventually, Cooke won a conference title in the indoor long jump and a regional title in the triple jump both in her senior year, though she added the discus and sprints as well.
“It (track) is a lot more distinct than a lot of other sports,” said Cooke. “You don’t get the same camaraderie that you do in soccer and sometimes I miss that. But track is a testament of how much you’ve worked and how hard you’ve worked. Even if you’re not competing against others, you’re competing against yourself in your times and tangible results.”
When she came to Towson as a freshman, Cooke showed signs of excelling at the high jump. That is, until she contracted mono near the end of her first semester. It laid her out for a week, and she returned to school, only to be told by a professor that she looked horrible.
Cooke was examined by an athletic trainer who told her throat was very swollen. That, along with a case of violent shivers and chills sent her to a hospital where she was diagnosed with a severe case of swine flu, which landed her in the intensive care unit for a week and nearly threatened her life.
Cooke eventually recovered, but not before she lost 10 pounds in a week at a time when she had been in the best shape of her life.
“I went from all that muscle to probably being weaker than I was when I was 12 or 14,” said Cooke.
In the aftermath of her bout with the flu, Cooke said she lost some of the technique she had developed in the high jump.
Before her illness, Cooke said she was approaching landing jumps of around her height of 5-feet, 5-inches. Since then, she’s been coming in around 5-foot, 3-inches in part because she’s been having trouble duplicating the arch a jumper needs when going over the bar.
Cooke continued to make progress in the outdoor heptathlon and the indoor pentathlon, a five-event competition, in her sophomore year. In the midst of preparing for her junior campaign last year, Cooke, an international business major, got a chance to study for a semester in China.
It was the academic chance of a lifetime, but it came with a price: Cooke would have to miss preseason training in the fall. Cooke said Towson coach Roger Erricker was a little hesitant about letting one of his top performers leave for an extended period on the eve of the indoor season, but eventually gave his blessing, provided she promised to stay in shape.
“Coach is very much interested in what we do outside of college, what we do once we leave track and field,” said Cooke. “Obviously, it’s very important to do what we’re expected to do on the team, but I think he's very much aware that our life goes beyond that and that we need to take all the opportunities and chances that college provides.”
Cooke returned in fine form, finishing third in the heptathlon at the Colonial Athletic Association championship meet and 12th in the ECAC championships last year.
For this season, Cooke thinks she’s got a good chance to get that 5-foot-5 high jump, thanks in large part to her new teammate, freshman Michelle Keller.
Cooke says Keller, who placed 16th in Sunday’s meet at Princeton, has exhibited the kind of form that she used to have, especially with the arch. The more time Cooke spends around her younger teammate, the better she thinks her chances are of landing that elusive 5-foot-5 jump.
“I’ve already started to have the occasional glimpse back into the good days of high jump," said Cooke. "This is definitely the year,”