SALADO — Alex Cooke has always considered himself a runner.
Even when he couldn’t.
It’s been nearly four years since a sharp tightness in Cooke’s chest was discovered to be primary spontaneous pneumothorax — a small tear in the lining of his lungs — forcing the then-freshman from Salado to undergo surgery and do the one thing he hates most: sit still.
“It was hard not to being able to do what kind of defined me as a person — running is kind of one of my main identities,” Cooke said.
That moment in time seems like a distant memory for the current Salado senior, who will continue to identify himself in that light after signing a letter of intent to Texas Tech on April 21.
“It’s just unreal. ... I could have never imagined myself running at such an elite level,” Cooke said. “But over the last couple of years, I’ve transformed into what I am today. It’s just awesome.”
Cooke formally celebrated the achievement Tuesday during a mock signing ceremony in front of family and friends after putting off the moment so as not to distract from the real accomplishment — punching his ticket to the state meet.
“Now it’s a fun time, and it’s paid off because if we’d done this and he hadn’t have qualified it would have been such a downer,” Salado cross country and track coach Cindy Mewhinney said. “Now to have it, everybody’s happy for him because he’s that kind of kid.”
The Division I-bound Eagle completed that goal this past weekend after a pair of photo-finishes with Eustace’s Evan Arambula secured him a first- and second-place medal in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs, respectively, at the Region II-2A track and field meet Friday and Saturday at Tarleton State University in Stephenville.
“I was nervous for that; I wanted to put up some respectable times and respectable performances, and the fact that I was able to do that was really satisfying,” Cooke said. “It was a little bit of pressure, but that actually drove me more to prepare well and perform well.”
Cooke said Texas Tech “just seemed like a really good fit,” and he’ll receive partial scholarships for academics and books with the option to earn more money based on his performance once there.
Cooke beat Arambula in the 1,600 by the closest of margins — a hundredth of a second — leaning across the finish line in 4:22.73, just ahead of Arambula on Saturday.
The day before, it was Arambula that got the better of Cooke, winning first place in the 3,200 run in 9:32.63 — 0.02 seconds ahead of his Salado competition. Regardless of first or second, both marks are good enough to punch Cooke’s ticket to the 2A state meet May 10-11 at Mike A. Myers’ Stadium in Austin.
They were also good enough to obliterate several school records set by 2005 graduate and Texas A&M runner Nick Everett, who won a pair of 2A state titles in the 3,200 at Salado.
Cooke continues a line of Eagles and Lady Eagles distance runners to go Division I, including 2007 graduate and fellow Red Raider Chelsea Ervi, Everett and fellow former Aggie, Lauren Mewhinney (2003).
“It means a lot because in the beginning of my (running) career, I never saw myself running in the future, past high school, but as I was able to increase my performance in the past year, it’s an honor to be able to go (to Tech) and represent my family,” Cooke said.
Everett’s previous school-record marks of 9:49 in the 3,200 and 4:27.73 in the 1,600 will be coming down after Cooke crushed both this season, including breaking a personal-best 4:18 in the 1,600 at the Jesuit-Sheaner Relays in Dallas earlier this year.
“I never thought those two records would have ever been broken and he just obliterated them ... and (Cooke) just keeps coming,” Mewhinney said. “He’s run a 4:18, why can’t he run a 4:15?”