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Swimmer-turned-runner expected to go distance

Taylor Cooke of Seven Rivers Christian is only a seventh-grader but a "supreme athlete'' on course for a state berth.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

LECANTO -- Taylor Cooke considers herself a swimmer.

She learned the sport when she was 8 and trains at least 90 minutes a day. Sometimes she swims before school, sometimes after. But rain or shine, she is in the pool.

"Swimming is my favorite," Cooke said.

Track is gaining ground.

Despite never running competitively before this spring, Cooke -- a seventh-grader at Seven Rivers Christian -- has been among the state's top distance runners in Class A.

She competes in the 1,600 meters, 3,200 and 4x800 relay (along with Rachel Ebert, Cassidy Rash and Karissa Gandee), and Cooke might reach state in each event.

"She's a supreme athlete," Warriors coach Scott Lyons said.

That is high praise for a 13-year-old, but as her opponents continually have discovered, Cooke is no ordinary seventh-grader.

Her top time in the 3,200 of 12 minutes, 8 seconds would have been good for fourth place in the 2001 state meet. And her 5:49 in the 1,600 is among the region's top performances.

Cooke's best 3,200 effort came in last week's 31-team Capital City Classic in Tallahassee. She placed seventh, finishing behind five seniors and a sophomore.

"The coaches in Tallahassee were floored," Lyons said.

Lyons was instrumental in getting Cooke to run.

Because the two got along well when he coached her middle school basketball and volleyball teams, Cooke expressed an interest in track and field once she learned Lyons was in charge.

"I liked Coach Lyons, and I was moving up in age group (in swimming) and my kick needed some work, so I decided track might help me with that," she said.

The 5-foot-8 Cooke made an immediate impact.

In her first meet, she surprised everyone by running the 1,600 in 6:05.

"I knew right from that point on that she was going to be great, not just good," Lyons said. "She had no idea she was going to be this good. The amazing thing is that she's still learning."

Cooke said running has, in fact, helped her in the pool, where she primarily competes in freestyle distance events. Her endurance is greater, and yes, her kick has improved.

"God has given me a lot of talent," Cooke said, "and I'm just using it to the best of my ability."

Because Seven Rivers does not offer swimming, Cooke, who lives in Homosassa, might transfer to another school before she enters the ninth grade.

For now, though, she is happy where she is at, and Lyons and Co. are glad to have her.

"She's a great kid," the coach said. "She's very intelligent and very exuberant.

"I think she'll finish in the top five at state this year (in the 3,200). And eventually, she will win a state championship -- no matter what school she goes to."

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