Steve Cook competes in the men's 20 km at the Paralympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 on March 16, 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Steve Cook’s Para Nordic skiing career took him all over the world and led him to three Paralympic Winter Games, where he won a total of two gold, four silver and one bronze medal in cross-country.
Now 51, Cook has served as head coach of The Utah Nordic Alliance’s skiing program since 2014 and helps foster a love of the sport with younger generations.
“It’s just really fun to work with the kids and show them a passion for a sport that’s given me so much,” he said.
After losing his lower right leg in a farming accident in 1988, Cook turned first to mountain bike racing and then road cycling. The latter took him to his first Paralympic Games in Atlanta 1996, where he competed both in track and road cycling. After that he was looking for something different and it was at a local mountain bike race in his home state of Utah that he met the head coach of the U.S. disabled Nordic team who suggested he give cross-country skiing a try.
“I found it really stuck and it was very exciting,” Cook said. “I do have a fair bit of OCD so the technique part—learning the different techniques and how to adapt them to my disability to become the best skier I could—was really intriguing.”
Cook made his winter Paralympic debut in 1998 in Nagano, where he finished top-10 in two of his three events. He returned for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City where he competed in five races and won a U.S.-record four medals, all silver: men’s 1x2.5/2x5-kilometer open, men’s 20-kilometer free technique standing, men’s 10-kilometer free technique LW2-4 and men’s 5-kilometer classical technique LW2-4.
Four years later he returned for his third Winter Games in Torino. He took the bronze medal in the men’s 20-kilometer then won gold in both the men’s 10-kilometer and men’s 5-kilometer. One of his fondest Paralympic memories comes from Torino.
“I had 10 or 12 friends and family that came to watch, and we had an off-day between races so I went to have dinner with them at this little tiny Italian restaurant,” he said. “I brought my gold medal to show my friends and family, but some of the people in the restaurant recognized me so they stood up and raised their wine glasses and congratulated me. We were sitting at one end of the restaurant and I set my medal at one end of the table then sent it around. I’d send it out to the right and it came in from the left an hour later so everyone in the restaurant got a chance to look at it. Being from the town where the Paralympics and Olympics happened it seemed like they really enjoyed being up close to it. Then everyone got together when we were leaving and wanted photos. It was just kind of a fun, memorable time.”
In addition to his Paralympic success, Cook also won the 2005 world cup title then was runner-up to the title in 2006 and was named Ski Racing magazine's U.S. Disabled Athlete of the Year before he retired.
Cook was then chosen to develop an adaptive Nordic skiing program at the National Ability Center that would help feed the U.S. development pipeline, but it wasn’t an easy task.
“The hardest part was finding athletes,” he said. “It didn’t really take off. I believe I was only there a year or something. We did a few training camps and traveled around trying to find more athletes but it’s a tough prospect. It’s a hard sport, it takes a lot of time and dedication and I think for most it’s a sport that you would come to after you’ve been disabled for a little while and kind of want to try some different things. I don’t think it’s something you do with your first prosthetic or when you’re getting used to transferring in and out of a chair.”
From there he moved to working as an assistant with an able-bodied junior-level program in Park City, Utah, where he fell in love with coaching kids, and found his current job as a head coach in 2014.
When he looks back on his career, Cook said, he’s proud of how he, his teammates and coaches helped bring the sport more into the public eye than it had been before and the gained respect from their able-bodied counterparts. Seeing how the sport and the Paralympic movement in general has continued to grow and progress over the years has also been amazing, he said.
He hopes his influence now as a coach can only continue to inspire all athletes.
“I was working on a ranch when I lost my leg, so to go from that to being someone who traveled the world all winter and went to all these races and had success, sometimes I wonder where I would be if I hadn’t lost my leg,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d have been able to experience everything I have so far as a disabled person and athlete. Nordic was a big part of that. I had great coaches who really instilled a love of the sport and worked tirelessly to get us not only in shape and skiing fast but staying up all night waxing skis and things like that. It was something I knew I had to give back to and help give the opportunity to pretty much anyone that wanted to experience what I did in the sport.”