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Robert Cook, 90, on swimming and life outside Bermuda

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Robert Cook in the sweatshirt he wore for the 1948 London Olympics (Photograph supplied)

Robert Cook became hooked on swimming as a child.

Before long, he was training with the late “Chummy” Hayward and practising on his own three times a day – whenever he had a break in classes at Saltus Grammar School.

He was also good at track and field, and top of his class, academically.

Looking back, he is amazed at his intensity.

“I think it was because I came from a working-class family,” he said.

He was one of nine children born to John and Muriel Cook. His father was an electrician who performed as Cookie the Clown for charity events and parades to earn extra money.

Mr Cook initially studied at Dellwood Primary School. At 12, he applied for a government scholarship to Saltus. He did not get it but gratefully accepted when Mr Hayward and John Young, the hotelier, offered to pay for his first year.

The next year he won the scholarship.

“It was for four years and got me through,” he said.

1948 Olympic team: W F “Chummy” Hayward (left), Derek Oatway, Francis “Goose” Gosling, Philip Tribley, Donald Shanks, Walter Bardgett, Robert Cook and coach Bill Brooks (File photograph)

At 15, he and several other Bermudians in Mr Hayward’s swim programme qualified for the 1948 London Olympics.

London was only just recovering from the Second World War. Evidence of bombing damage was everywhere.

“Everyone was very kind,” Mr Cook said. “I loved it. It was the most exciting event of my life. We did not win any medals, but I wasn’t last.”

In his second year at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, he qualified to swim with the Bermuda team at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

“One advantage to competing at 15, was that I was still a baby,” he said. “At that age, you don’t have the same fear as when you are older. When I went at 19, it was terrifying. I was on the toilet the whole time before, being cleaned out. I was nervous beyond belief.”

Again, he did not win any medals, but was proud to have taken part. Back at McGill he swam competitively and played water polo until he graduated, when he abruptly stopped.

“I got burnt out by it,” he said. “I lost the love of it.”

He met his wife, Carolyn, in university. The couple will celebrate their 65th anniversary on September 7.

A career as an architect “seemed like a guarantee of a good life”. He initially intended to return home after getting experience overseas but “after five or ten years [he] was cemented into life outside of Bermuda”.

The Cooks spent three-and-a-half years in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where their son James, and daughter, Robin, were born.

Mr Cook supervised the construction of a broadcasting centre that was partly sponsored by the Canadian Government.

When the build was done, the Cooks returned to Montreal, but found it a bad time for architects. The family moved to New York City.

“I worked for the American Stock Exchange for three years,” he said. “But most of the time I was working for a large architectural firm. Then after 15 years, we moved to San Francisco, where I continued to work.”

In California, he focused on interior architecture. Clients were typically large financial corporations such as Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch and Federal Express.

In Malaysia he had started running with a non-competitive group, The Hash House Harriers. In San Francisco he set up a chapter of the club, which still operates today.

Twice a week he swims 40 to 50 laps in the community pool he joined at age 71 in San Rafael, California.

Initially, he “was just looking around for more exercise” but then he heard about the US Masters Swimming Association.

The organisation collects the swim times from pools across the United States and publishes a list of the top competitors.

“I started following that and made the top ten in every event I swam in,” he said. “At 86, I was second in the country, in my age category, in the 200m freestyle long course and third in both the 100m freestyle and the 1,500m freestyle. I was second in the 100m breaststroke short course.”

He had to stop competing a year ago due to challenges with his heart.

“That has been cured but I still have a mild irregular heartbeat,” he said. “So I have had to slow down.”

Four years ago he retired from architecture but enjoys his time as a docent at Marin County Civic Centre, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “largest public project and last commission” before his death in 1959.

“It was his last and most outstanding project,” Mr Cook said. “I have been leading tours there, twice a month, for the last 15 to 20 years.”

He and his wife have three grandchildren.

Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Wednesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or jmhardy@royalgazette.com with the full name and contact details and the reason you are suggesting them

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Published March 15, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated March 14, 2023 at 1:35 pm)

Robert Cook, 90, on swimming and life outside Bermuda

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