When the best thing that happens is failure

Carol Cooke and her remarkable attitude to winning and losing

Image source: AAP

Carol Cooke is the first of our featured women in Inspirational Australian Women 2017. In this interview with Clare McAlaney, she shares how she has made not only sport a business, but her disease, MS. Defining herself by her values and not what happens to her, Carol explains why businesswomen who reach for the gold that matters to them are more likely to succeed. And, why the most successful women give back and mentor others.

Here is a sneak peek at her story. The full story will be available in Inspirational Australian Women 2017.

Carol Cooke was not always a three-times Paralympic Gold Medalist or five-time World Champion with a silver tucked in there for good measure. She was a business woman, climbing the corporate ladder, spending most of what she earned, while feeling there was someone more out there for her but unable to tap into what it was.

To chat with Carol is like speaking with a living book of wisdom. But it doesn’t come from a place of authority, in the sense of someone who has worked their butt off to gain an elusive air of superiority. Far from it. It comes from someone who already had the bones of success and has consciously added the skin of results throughout her life.

In 1980, Carol’s world was only just opening before her. At 18, she was set to qualify for the Canadian swim team. Back then, she wryly notes, if you didn’t make it by your late teens, you were literally washed up. As the Olympics drew closer, the United States pulled out of the Moscow games in objection to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Of course, Canada followed suite, joining a total of 65 nations making history by boycotting that year. Her entire teen years were literally for the glory of an almost-been. However, instead of focusing on lost opportunity, she pragmatically joined the police force. What else was there to do but get a job? For 13 years, she put herself forward for the community, gaining skills and confidence very few paid jobs offer. But still, it wasn’t enough.

Finally, she faced facts. She was over the force, but had no idea what to do. So she bundled up a few belongings and traipsed the shores of Australia, before meeting her now-husband. A quick stint back to Canada to the Force, this time into the uniform division, convinced her that she was no longer meant for the career she thought she would embrace all her working life. Australia-bound she was.

After a stint at teaching swimming, life for Carol became the life many Australians relate to; heading into the office (Australia Post), hustling for promotions and a bigger pay packet, and watching hordes of unhappy workers trudge the pavements to work each day. That niggling feeling didn’t go away, and in 1998, what she was meant to be doing announced itself, with no apologies and not a nicety in sight.

MS turned up on her doorstep.

MS, multiple sclerosis, is a frightening disease for those outside looking in. MS won’t kill you, doctors wryly tell shocked patients. But you will die with it. It slowly removes the ability to function, and for someone like Carol, who had actively pursued health and fitness all her life, it was more than a rude slap. In fact, for six months, she denied its existence. But over time, perhaps 12 months, the ‘why me?’ became ‘why not me?’

With growing awareness, Carol realised that she had a voice, and with that voice, could reach out to others suffering the onset of the disease. MS was not going to define her. She was going to define it.

Putting herself forward without a gold medal to be won, Carol became the ambassador for MS nationally. Her reach grew to thousands, then millions. When a nine-year-old asked her whether she would change whether she had MS or not, she replied, “No. I wouldn’t. It made me who I am.”

In 2001, Carol had turned her life around completely. She was giving back ten-fold, and in the midst of a disease that ‘is shitty at times’, she created MS 24-hour Mega Swim in Victoria, which expanded into New South Wales and Queensland, and shortly, Tasmania. In 15 years, they have raised over $7.5 million that has solely gone to making dreams come true for MS sufferers. Carol has learned that focusing on achieving a dream builds a stronger sense of wellness, and gives space from focusing on multiple sclerosis.

The passion for giving back is in her voice, particularly as she shares moments that cement the ‘why’ in all she does.

One woman was completely bed-bound. Her husband had left her, and her daughter was getting married. Getting to the event was an impossible dream. It would cost over $7,000 to take her there by road ambulance, plus have all the support she needed to leave hospital for a day. By way of scholarship from MS Mega Swim, they provided $10,000, complete with a new dress, so that she could share one of the most special days of her life with her daughter.

To build such a successful, fully operating fund, takes qualities that successful business women have, and Carol is clear about what these are:

  • Be happy doing what you are doing. Everybody around you will benefit from this.

  • When we put ourselves first, we are more powerful.

  • Be passionate without fear of failing. Take a leap. Failing is part of success, because this is where the learning comes from.

  • Attempt things as though you cannot fail and with the attitude that you are going to enjoy it regardless. Even if you are crap at it, you can always move onto the next thing.

  • The best thing that can happen to you is failure. When Carol lost the World Championships leading up to the London Paralympics, she was upset she didn’t win, but the best thing came out of it; she learned new and unique skills to put her ahead of the rest of the competitors, winning gold after only cycling for one year. She took a risk, and this time, it paid off.

Has carrying three gold medals home made a difference to her success? Carol laughs. No, she is still on a disability pension, and is now more frugal with money. But it has sent numerous opportunities, such as writing and publishing her book, speaking engagements in front of thousands, and giving back to others in ways impossible before MS knocked on her door.

Carol may not define herself by her disease, but she certainly does by her values. Mentoring others is possibly the highest on her list, and she believes that this is a sure sign of a successful business woman. They celebrate when there are wins, and help alleviate worry when the road gets rocky. “We all have negative days”, shares Carol, “but you should never let it last more than a day. You can always find a positive, you must want to find a positive. Or, you can just bitch about it.” Carol chooses to look for the positive, and embrace shitty days as simply part of the deal, and then move on.

She illustrates this with a story of an acquaintance who was great to be around…most of the time. One day, Carol was in hospital with her belly cut open following removal of her bowel. Loaded with tubes and wires, lying through blood transfusions, the woman paid a visit. “How are you?” asked Carol. “Yeah, okay”, the visitor replied. “Guess what! I’ve had surgery too!”

As Carol strained to see evidence of surgery, it became clear. The woman was unconsciously bringing negativity into the ward. Even as Carol pulled down the covers to show the massive cut in her abdomen, she endured her tale of a minor surgery. While liking the woman very much, Carol chooses to surround herself with people she can ask opinions of and with whom she can listen to and share. Her mentors are her six closest friends, all positive in outlook. Being in this state of mind and being amongst like-people is something Carol ranks highly in the laws of success.

There are two things that drive Carol. Her passion for what she does (and, she notes candidly, she happens to be pretty good at cycling), and the other, in having a purpose. "Not everyone is aiming for the Olympics", she notes. "In fact, it doesn’t matter what level you are aiming for."

"In fact", she explains, "You can be an inspiration, and you can mentor. It’s a choice."

There is no doubt that Carol is a role model for thousands. It is not just the tireless dedication to raising money to help those coming to terms with the difficulty of the disease and making it easier for them. Carol truly believes in mentoring. By telling her story, as she generously has with Inspirational Australian Women 2017, and by increasing her reach to thousands with a strong and positive message, Carol is a mentor of proportions she never dreamed possible.

That aching feeling of not being enough, of not living her purpose, has long gone. While money still may not flow as strongly as she would like - being on a disability pension is far from easy - she has demonstrated that her business acumen is as worthy as the values she lives daily. These are the choices she makes, and she would not have it any other way, because the collective gift of her past has made her who she is today.

And that's a choice, she concludes, that the most successful people will make, time after time.

Do you have a story to tell? Telling your story is one of the most valuable and honorable things you can do for others, while building your brand. Be a part of Inspirational Australian Women 2017. For more information, click here.

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