15 April 2001

Olympic champion Stephanie Cook sets her sights on a triumphant farewell at the World Championships.

At the top of the stairs there was a life-size cardboard cut-out of Stephanie Cook, looking mean in a blue tracksuit with modern pentathlon’s air pistol low and loose in her grip. Out in Bath University’s giant sports hall she and her white-clad rivals thrust and parried in the fencing discipline in front of two hacks, two snappers, three boyfriends, a mother and a husband with a baby. Britain’s most dazzling doctor had come a long way from Sydney Gold.

But this is where her last season begins. The British Pentathlon Championships; the shooting, fencing and swimming yesterday, the running and show jumping today. After the first three events (with 3,222pts) she was close third behind rising star Georgina Harland (3,262) and Olympic bronze medallist Kate Allenby (3,240), the three of them sharing a lush chocolate cake that Kate had baked for Harland’s 23rd birthday.

A stress fracture of the right tibia at the end of December has meant that Cook is behind schedule. Her avowed intent to return to medicine full-time as a surgical Senior House Officer means that the World Championships at Millfield in Somerset this July will usher her out of the sport which she and Allenby so famously boosted in the Olympics. It makes this weekend important.

It started with the shooting in the Bath and District Civil Service Bowling Club. Her 20 shots at the 10-metre target scored seven eights, nine nines and four 10s to a 177 total which is somehow translated into 1,060 pentathlon points. It left her fourth to Allenby’s 183/1,132 point score. And not altogether a happy lady.

“I really ought to be scoring consistently in the 180s,” she said as she lugged her fencing bag out of the silver Mercedes 260 which was the first and wonderfully treasured perk of her gold medal status. “But we are still in contention and this is all part of the process. I have only had the one competition before this, [second to Harland in Paris] and I have to get myself more sharp.”

When the big clock got round to 1.30 and eight fencing matches got under way, the scene was an astonishing mix of intensity and listless Saturday afternoon ennui. Behind one of the draped-curtain partitions two teenagers played out a fairly hapless game of badminton. On the eight special metal fencing strips (sorry “pistes”) one woman dominated. Here’s a reminder. If you see Kate Allenby coming at you with an epee, don’t put up your weapon. Drop it and run.

The driving force behind the recent rise in women’s pentathlon which has now won itself renewed funding at elite level and is actively encouraging more youngsters to join is a heavier more powerful figure than Cook. She, too, has an ankle heavily strapped, but when she has put that unruly mop of hair under the mask and got the epee into that big left hand she looks as if she would put D’Artagnan and company to shame.

Cook did get a hit in her 2-1 defeat but it was mostly on the defensive as Allenby went for everything including the toes. In case you ask, the metal strips are to avoid confusion twixt ground and toes.

But lest anyone forget, Cook was always a lot more than the prettiest gold medal face to come out of the Olympics. She may have appeared on everything from A Question of Sport to Des O’Connor and even now is part of National Smile Week, but she is a competitor to the very end of those impossible bird-like legs. Heck, this is the lady who got into the national team while taking her medical finals at Oxford. A junior doctor whose sleep pattern had to fit in international training too.

So after a tentative start Cook began to get back in the game. Harland, who had blamed herself for slipping to 10th in the shooting, was disposed of 2-1. Gallant first-timer and former Navy physical training instructor Janine Burns (“I am 35 next month but I want to get more older women to take it up so we can have Seniors Tour”) was slaughtered 3-0. At the end of the fencing. Allenby still led but Cook had risen to third.

“I was pleased with that,” said Cook as she folded herself into some complicated lotus-like stretching positions. “I was getting back into the groove. These events all count towards getting selected for the Europeans (in Bulgaria in June) and the Worlds. Nothing can be taken for granted but I have always believed if something was worth doing it was worth doing well.”

Harland looked on with a mixture of admiration and anticipation as Cook allowed herself to look back at the media madhouse she has been through since that moment when she reeled in the runners and viewers around the world saw sport with its ultimate smiling face. “I have really enjoyed it,” said Cook, “but in my heart I always knew I was going back to medicine.”

Across to the gleaming eight-lane, 50m pool and you could see what Harland was waiting for. She is the fastest women’s pentathlete swimmer in the world and her 2min 15sec for the 200m equalled her personal best. But 10 seconds behind Cook’s almost skeletal figure held off Allenby to clock her fastest yet and set up a wonderful finale this afternoon.

On present form Cook has 15 seconds in hand on Harland, and quite a bit more on Allenby in the 3,000m run. If the fences stay up in the show jumping we have to think this championship will be another case of “Dr Cook, I presume”.

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