Natalie Cook's Dream Evolved, And Then She Won Nationals

* Flower Mound's Natalie Cook finished off her final cross country season with her second straight national win

Photo Credit: Raymond Tran/MileSplit

By Cory Mull - MileSplit

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA -- It wasn't so long ago that Natalie Cook just dreamed of winning state. The Flower Mound (TX) senior had finished fifth, fifth and seventh across her high school career at the UIL Class 6A State Cross Country Championships. 

And then Nov. 6 happened.

Cook, 18, ran the second-fastest time in state history, clocking a then-U.S. No. 1 time of 16:32.40 at Old Settler's Park in Round Rock. 

For some athletes, that would have been the apex. That would have been the milestone of all milestones. State champion. 

But then Cook went on to win three more races, including national best outcomes at the Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships on Dec. 4 and Saturday's win at the Eastbay Cross Country Championships.

She became the first girl to ever win the national double. She became America's top high school girls distance runner of 2021.

"I just tried to see if I could form a gap during the middle mile. Because I knew the middle mile is always the hardest mile of them all. That's where usually people break down and all that stuff. I knew I could keep that middle mile pretty strong and hang on." -- Natalie Cook

To say she was surprised would be an understatement. 

"It's a dream come true," said Cook, whose mother, Melissa, also qualified and ran at Foot Locker Nationals in 1997 -- she was 23rd that year. "I'm so happy. It's amazing how much I grew as a runner. If you told me last year, 'Oh, this would be happy.' I wouldn't believe you. I'd be like, 'Wait, what?' I got seventh at state last year."

To understand how Cook got to this point, though, would take some minor understanding of her career. 

After a promising freshman season that saw Cook finish fifth at state and then qualify for Team Nationals -- Flower Mound's girls qualified as a team -- she moved into her sophomore year with higher aspirations. 

Photo Credit: Raymond Tran/MileSplit

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But little things, both mental and physical, got in the way.

"Over my sophomore year I dealt with a lot of anxiety racing," she said. 

Then that same year, she broke her foot -- the third metatarsal of her right foot -- and was on crutches for three months. For the ensuing year, she barely ran. 

Her father Andrew was right in the middle of her struggle, watching as she dealt with those pains ever day. He was both her head coach at Flower Mound and her father, which meant that balancing those things became all the more difficult. But over that same year he began to think of alternative solutions. 

Andrew typically prescribed his girls runners around a 30- to 40-mile threshold of weekly mileage. It was a concept that he had long believed, the idea that if you were going to be running well into November and December, your body would need to be prepared for that body of work. 

But Natalie didn't exactly explode as a junior on higher mileage, finishing fourth at state in the 3,200m. She didn't even qualify in the 1,600m.

So Andrew altered the offseason plan, putting her on less mileage and more cross-training. Natalie focused on laser-focused training and just 15 miles a week. It wasn't long before some realizations were made. 

In August, over the opening weeks of the cross country season, Natalie ran 10:12.74 for 2-miles on the track at Southlake Carroll High School. It would have been the 12th-fastest time of the 2021 outdoor season. 

It was there when Andrew's jaw dropped. He didn't think it was possible. 

The day had felt like 100 degrees. The humidity had been absolutely unbearable. Few runners would prosper in an environment like that. But Natalie never broke. 

"The humidity was through the roof," Andrew said. "It's one of those things where I said to myself, 'She shouldn't be able to do that. It was that fast. To me, it was like running sub-10 in California." 

The time was 14 seconds faster than her personal best that spring. 

"With my athletes, we run about 30 to 40 miles a week. We do these workouts and all of these other things," Andrew said. "But with her, it was like, maybe we don't do those things. Maybe we try a different route and different training. It's obviously working. I don't want to mess things up. Let's stick with it."

So the plan was made and Natalie continued on. Her first national success came with a fourth-place outing at the Woodbridge Cross Country Classic. She was one of four girls to break 16 minutes on the 3-mile course, going 15:56.30. 

Still, she finished third behind Dalia Frias and Samantha McDonnell

That moment may have been when Andrew first asked himself whether her performance was singularly magical, or the sign of things to come. 

"We've kind of just taken it one week at a time," Andrew said. "We almost laugh at it at times." 

Small moments later on may have prepared Natalie for success down the road. Like her UIL Class 6A-1 Regional Championship win in Lubbock. The course not only looped, but it featured a series of hills that she had to conquer each time out. 

"On our regional course before states, it's a 3-miler and it has a lot of hills like that," Natalie said. "We do that hill twice. That kind of help me get prepared. I ran one of my best races there."

Cook dropped a time of 16:39.90. Two weeks later, she dominated at state, nearly beating second-place Aubrey O'Connell by a minute. Cook ran 16:32.40, while O'Connell was second in 17:28.50.

"The humidity was through the roof. It's one of those things where I said to myself, 'She shouldn't be able to do that. It was that fast. To me, it was like running sub-10 in California." -- Andrew Cook

Andrew reexamined at that point.

Ahead of the season, the goal was for Natalie to compete for a state title -- perhaps not to dominate like she did. But what was next? Did either of them realize just where she could take it? 

"We're not trying to be mean, but we didn't expect this to happen," Andrew said. "We get out there at state and she's flying along. We'll see what happens next. Each time you watch a race, I ask myself, 'Will this will be the new norm? Or will it be another special race?'" 

Three weeks later, Cook demolished her competition again, winning the Eastbay South Regional in 16:38.05. It was her second straight 5K under 16:40. 

And it was in that race, much like at state, where Cook used the second mile to surge and pull away. 

A week later, on Dec. 4, Cook ran the second-fastest girls 5K time in history, going 16:03.93 at the Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships. It was her first big national win. 

Photo Credit: Raymond Tran/MileSplit

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"I think she's done a good job with it, competing when the gun goes off," Andrew said. "When the gun goes off, she competes well." 

Natalie's biggest challenge, however, came at the Eastbay XC Championships on Saturday. 

Few would argue that the challenges of Balboa Park were markedly different than the ones of John Hunt Park, which featured long, sloping turns and stretches of fast, smooth and downhill running. 

But Natalie never quite allowed herself to get caught up in the hype. 

"I just go out there and run by best," Natalie said. 

On race day,  she answered every challenge asked of her, using the first mile to measure her competition before making a big move just before the first hill. Like all her races in the weeks prior, Cook made her move into the second mile, forming a lead into that first big punch-you-in-the-gut moment. 

"I felt like every single race I did that, it ended up working out for me," Cook said of her move. "I just tried to see if I could form a gap during the middle mile. Because I knew the middle mile is always the hardest mile of them all. That's where usually people break down and all that stuff. I knew I could keep that middle mile pretty strong and hang on." 

On the second loop, as Cook extended her lead and kept the gas on, a chase pack emerged with Riley Stewart, Kate Peters, Ellie Shea, Sophia Kennedy, Angelina Perez and Jenna Mulhern

Perez and Mulhern, the pair of Northeast runners, made moves just over two miles. The pair held on late as the hill emerged and they began to challenge Cook.

"When I was in the top pack, I saw girls around me struggling and falling off," Mulhern said. "I was like, 'Maybe I have a shot at being a top five or top three. So I just hung in there. There was nothing to lose. It was the last race. So I gave it everything I had."

Perez, meanwhile, tried to stick on Mulhern as she made her way down the final descent. The New Jersey native hadn't lost all season. 

"When you run the hill the second time, that's where a lot of people die out and can't make it. For me, it was kind of like, I want to have enough left in me that I can conquer that hill and make a move," Perez said. "If I can't win, I can get as close to it as possible. That was my save for today. Really holding back and having enough energy at the end to really kick that hill like I wanted to." 

But despite those tense last 600 meters, Cook found her form in the final stages, crested a small incline and then powered down the stretch and into the finish. 

"I feel so blessed," Natalie said. "It's an amazing feeling. I'm so happy." 

Andrew was equally shocked. 

Photo Credit: Daniel Hernandez/MileSplit

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"I talked to the Dallas Morning News a few weeks back before state. They asked me if Natalie was the favorite. I said, 'I don't think so. She hasn't even been on the podium before.' Even winning state. If things go well, we can fight for it. Winning state wasn't an out right goal. So the idea of winning a national title wasn't even on our radars."

Perhaps the most difficult moments of Cook's national success, then, has been the interviews. 

For the first time in her career, she's been the spotlight of everyone's attention. 

"This thing, talking and doing interviews, that's not something she gets super excited for," Andrew said. "She has anxiety about it. I have told her, 'It's good people want to talk to you. It means you're doing something right.' I think she's handling it well.

"She had an interview with Carrie Tollefson, who was an Olympic athlete," Andrew continued. "She told me afterward, 'That was hard!' That was her toughest moment of the week. More than that final hill, just doing those interviews." 

With a national win to her name, things could look different for Cook from this point forward.

As with any superlative moment, excellence now may be expected and pressure may mount. 

But perhaps not. If nothing else, Natalie has remained down-to-earth, with that awe-shucks Texas sentimentality. She's avoided the negativity of conjecture, of those doubting her performance on running boards, all those variables which sometimes get in the way of racing for young girls who experience the highest of successes. 

She's still a teenager.

Right now, she's looking forward to her next adventure. Over the holidays, she's headed to Disney World in Orlando. 

"It's her senior year," Andrew said. "She asked and we were like, 'All right, it's our last big vacation before you graduate.'"