Racing for rehab
Dominic Cooke was a star rugby player for Jesuit High School and UC Berkeley. At age 22, he was in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Rugby days behind, he returned to complete his degree at Cal. Now 32, he’s created a nonprofit called Try for Others, helping disabled athletes through exercise-based rehabilitation. Full disclosure: This summer, I ran Eppie’s Great Race with my father, a member of Team TFO (see “The (not so) Great Race,” SN&R, Scene&Heard, July 28).
Describe playing on such a dominant Cal rugby team.
Playing rugby at Cal was a great experience. It was definitely serious, and that’s why I wanted to play there. I learned a lot about rugby but even more about life, people and the focused discipline it takes to win.
What was it like adjusting to the spinal-cord injury?
It was a difficult adjustment, but I was lucky to have such supportive family and friends around me. The first couple of years were especially frustrating—it felt like everything I enjoyed had been taken from me. It seemed like there were so many things I could no longer do. It wasn’t until I read the following John Wooden quote that my outlook began to change: “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” I realized there was still a lot I could do with a disability, and used the quote for the motto of Try for Others.
Did you deal with depression?
I definitely had some tough times. … They try to give you antidepressants when you’re in the hospital or getting out of the hospital. I never was going to take that route. For me, my antidepressant is exercise, and that’s a big reason why I got involved in Team TFO and handcycling. … Above all that, it’s just support from your friends and family, too—and having that strong core group around you.
How did TFO come about?
In rugby, a touchdown is called a “try.” … When I got injured, I heard about other rugby players across the country that got injured. … In 2005, we hosted a rugby tournament in Sacramento with about 2,000 high-school kids, and that kind of kicked off TFO. For the first five years, we were basically working with the rugby community, helping critically injured rugby players. We’d give them money for their immediate medical needs, therapy and things like that.
[In 2008], I started wanting to get involved in athletics again and found handcycling. … There are so many races around the country, but when you’re paying for it all yourself, that can get pretty expensive. I started TFO to bridge that gap in funding for disabled and challenged athletes. … On the able-bodied side, I wanted to get more people involved with TFO who weren’t disabled. Team TFO seemed like the perfect fit: We could get both challenged athletes and able-bodied athletes together at the same event and learn a lot from each other. It was just kind of a fun way to bring that team dynamic.
How big is Team TFO in terms of members, and how many races have you guys done?
We’ve done Eppie’s for the last two years, but last year … we sponsored 24 challenged athletes, an additional 30 or so teammates of them and another 10 or so people who volunteered. … So I think all together last year, we had about 70 or so people in a Team TFO jersey. [We set] the record for the largest adaptive division recorded since the race began. We [also] raised about $10,000 to $12,000 in 20 days through our website.
Do you do something else for a living aside from running your foundation?
My family started a business a few years ago called Rampco that assists those with mobility challenges. Essentially what we do is we help the physically challenged with access solutions. … Most of our business comes from the [Veterans Affairs hospital]. Instead of going into a nursing home, or so [people] don’t have to stay at the hospital, we provide access solutions, so that they can stay at home and live there.
Who’s your favorite athlete?
Kort Schubert and Alejandro Albor. Alejandro is a gold medalist from Sacramento. He trained on the American River Parkway during his Olympic years. As a handcyclist, he’s an inspirational athlete to look up to and an all-around good guy. Kort is the former captain of the United States rugby team and also one of my best friends.
What’s next for Team TFO?
[My friend] Matt Fritsch and I are going to Florida in February to represent Team TFO in one of the biggest handcycling events in North America. It’s the Melbourne Marathon. All the top handcyclists in America will be there, and that’s something I’ll be training for over the next two months. We’re going to be raising some money for that, and we’re looking for sponsors to represent us.