About to compete in her fifth Olympics, Australia’s beach volleyball player Natalie Cook loves the Games as much as ever and has only one regret - she is unlikely to make it to the golden beaches of Rio in 2016.
At 37, Sydney gold medallist Cook is the first woman to take part in five Olympics for Australia and the only beach volleyball player of either gender to compete in every Games since the sport made its Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996.
“Coming to this event every four years is a huge motivation. I love the culture, I love the excellence, I love the lifestyle and what the Olympic Games represents,” Cook told Reuters on Sunday.
“It’s about being the best you can be every single day of your life and I’ve been doing that for 20 years.”
At 21, Cook was the youngest woman beach volleyball player at the Atlanta Games, where she won bronze with her then team mate Kerri Pottharst.
The pair went on to capture gold at the world famous Bondi Beach in 2000 in one of the most memorable moments of the Sydney Games.
Now playing with Tamsin Hinchley, 32, Cook is the oldest woman beach volleyball player at the London Games. The pair are not among the favourites but with their competitive spirit and immense experience they cannot be written off.
Every Games has a different feel, Cook said, reminiscing.
“In the U.S. everything was big. Sydney was home. Athens was where the Games began. In Beijing there were volunteers as far as you could see,” she said.
So what did she expect from the London Games?
“The location is obviously iconic,” Cook said, referring to Horse Guards Parade, a vast site in the heart of London that is normally used for Trooping the Colour, an annual British military ceremony marking Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday.
She relished the prospect of playing beach volleyball under the windows of Number 10 Downing Street, home of British prime ministers, and in front of an audience of 15,000, the largest ever at an Olympic beach volleyball venue.
“When I first started, in Atlanta, we were out by the car parks. In Sydney it was Bondi. In Athens we were by the ocean. Now we’re next to Buckingham Palace,” Cook said.
“Bondi is obviously close to my heart but this will be number two, unless we win and then it might take on the number one mantle.”
Cook and Hinchley will have to be at the top of their game from the word go after they were drawn in the same pool as U.S. pair Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, the only pair to have won Olympic gold twice, in Athens and Beijing.
“They are tough, there’s no doubt about it,” Cook said, adding though that May-Treanor and Walsh had been out of competition for a couple of weeks and could have lost some of their sharpness.
“We hope to catch them sleeping,” she said.
Cook and Hinchley will face the U.S. pair in their first match, which is scheduled to start at 11:00 p.m. local time (2200 GMT) on July 28.
Whatever the outcome, Cook will be able to look back on an exceptional Olympic career with satisfaction.
“It’s been a good life for me... I love everything about the sport and about the Olympic Games,” she said.
“If I could go to Rio, where beach volleyball is a superstar sport...” she said, letting her imagination roam to the beaches of Brazil.
“But my body, my brain and my heart are ready for a rest.”