New experiences, new approaches, new sponsors, and new ground being broken. The last few years have been all about transition for 25-year old US heptathlete Riley Cooks. And as the clock counts down to the US Championships heptathlon at the Drake Stadium in Des Moines, this is the story of how Riley made the transition from exhausted college graduate, to the woman to beat for a place on the US team for Doha.
After finishing on the Multistars podium at the first IAAF Combined Events Challenge meeting of the year in April, Riley also lined up to participate in the 2019 edition of Décastar, and it is on a slightly damp Friday evening in Talence in June that we meet up. We talk about the factors that have played a part in her 440-point improvement since 2017 – transition from college, the importance of sponsorship, connecting aspirations to reality. And, also, the fantasy days of the eighties.
In 2017 Riley finished fifteenth in the heptathlon at the US Championships in Sacramento, but a year later in Des Moines she was eighth, in a competition where only 76 points spanned the athletes from fourth to eighth. She finished only 108 points behind the bronze medallist Lindsay Schwartz.
And so far in 2019, Riley has revised her seven-event best twice, the first time to 5873 in Lana and then crucially going over 6000 points for the first time with a score of 6111 at the Pacific Twilight meeting in Azusa, California in May. Coupled with sponsorship from the female-led athletic apparel brand Oiselle, her breakthrough has enabled her to compete for the first time at an international level this year. First in Lana and then onto Talence, where the French ville was still basking in the afterglow of Mayer’s 2018 magic. And being part of a heptathlon field that includes the likes of World and Olympic champion Nafi Thiam is an important step on her journey to turning aspirations into reality
After graduating from college – Long Beach State – in 2017, Riley was experiencing the after-effects of a full-on college track and field schedule. She describes the transition from college as a tough one.
“Running in college is the big deal – everyone wants to get there, run Division 1, compete for the NCAA. But then, especially in track and field, there’s very little support. If you weren’t the best in college already, chances are you’re not going to get a sponsor. There’s not a ton of clubs, especially in the heptathlon.”
“I actually took about 5 or 6 months off after college, because I was burnt out. College athletics doesn’t really train you to deal with that. ‘Go for as much as you can, score as many points as you can’, and then…off with you! So, I took some time off, then decided to come back, which was a challenge. “
Riley had known coach Christopher Richardson during her time at college. Finding themselves in the same vicinity in California, they decided to work together after Riley’s graduation.
“We took a step back. Broke a lot of things down and had a look at the bigger picture. I wasn’t going for anything crazy – just rebuilding. We started over with a lot of general fitness, along with the small things in my events. And then I was lucky enough to finish eighth in the US at the national championship. With that improvement I was able to gain sponsorship. And the work we put in last year is what led to the PRs so far this year”
And that approach, breaking down and rebuilding things with a fresh perspective, is starting to pay dividends.
Now her best score starts with a “6”, and this year she had her first legal 200m under 24 seconds; four seconds came off her 800m time “My last year in college I actually never ran under 2:30 so that’s been a big barrier”; there’s a hurdles improvement to 13.37 and a long jump PB of 6.16 and importantly the first time over 6m in two years.
While the transition from college laid the groundwork for Riley’s improvements this year, she’s quite clear about the role that sponsorship has played in taking it to the next level. Riley is sponsored by Oiselle, a company that describes its mission as threefold: making a great product, improving the sport (with a focus on athletes’ rights and women’s rights – in the spotlight following the well-documented experience of Allyson Felix) and “building the sisterhood”. Riley is fulsome in her praise of the support she has received from them, and in facilitating the transition from 2018 to 2019, enabling participation in two of the European stops of IAAF Combined Events Challenge.
“Oiselle – they’re so cool. They’re small, they’ve only been around for 12 years. They were founded in 2007, and they’ve grown a ton – it’s almost like a “cult” following! It’s all women-led, woman-supported. It’s amazing, the fact that I’ve personally met the CEO of the company [Sally Bergesen] and she comes to our meets. They are super supportive, and all about the running community, so I’m really lucky to have got to know them. That’s been the biggest difference between last year and this year. Having support from them is what made it possible for me to go to Lana, which has now landed me here – in Talence – as well.”
But while sponsorship helps with the expenses associated with life as a full-time athlete, of course Riley also has support from her family. Combined events fans will know that the competitions in Götzis, Talence and so forth have their own special atmosphere as the crowd follows the same small clutch of athletes around the stadium for two days. And in such an intimate environment, the passionate and vocal supporters of each individual athlete stand out. That was the case this year in Lana when Riley’s parents, pictured below, travelled to Italy for her first international.
“They’re so supportive. 100%, I would not be able to do this without them. Especially last year when I didn’t really have any support, and throughout college, just everything. It’s expensive it’s a lot of work, I can’t work a full-time job, so their support has been key”
And a ball was had by all in Lana.
“I loved it; it was amazing. Definitely different, adjusting to the time changes, the different way the meet was run, but it was a lot of fun. Although I did PR, I thought I was going to go for the big score…but it was really fun, and great experience.”
A common theme that comes across when talking to Riley is the sense that she can capture aspirations that might seem abstract – things that happen to other people – and ground them in the reality of what she knows she is capable of. Riley’s 6111 from May, between her competitions in Lana and Talence, positions her fourth in the US lists for 2019 behind Kendell Williams and Erica Bougard, both of whom have lifetime bests in excess of 6500, and 2019 NCAA champion Ashtin Zamzow.
“As long as I’ve been doing the hep, I’ve been looking at those big scores. Kendell and Erica have been the best in the US for years. It seemed so unrealistic. Not a fantasy because I knew I was capable of certain things, but I just felt like it was something you dream about and it doesn’t feel real until it happens. I knew I was capable, and my coach knew that I would get that big score – they always do – but it doesn’t feel real until it happens. And when it did happen, I was like…ok! I knew that was coming! I knew that that was what I was capable of. You train and you train, and you train. And then you finally put it together.”
“So, it’s exciting this year going into the national championships. In 2017, my senior year in college, I was pretty burnt out. And last year I went into it feeling like I had to prove – to everyone and to myself – that this is what I was supposed to be doing. That being professional was the right choice. I did do well there, and so that was a pivotal meet for me. So now it’s cool to go back this year as someone to beat.”
And with the US Championships imminent, and the notorious sudden death selection system, are the World Championships in Doha on Riley’s mind as she goes into her national competition?
“Absolutely! I’ve always been the type that’s pretty good under pressure, and especially in the heptathlon – anything can happen. I’ve known the girls I’m going to be competing against, I’ve travelled with them. I love all the US heptathletes, so who knows what’s going to happen.”
Both Kendell Williams and Erica Bougard have exceeded the qualifying score for Doha in 2019, and when it comes to seeking role models, Riley draws inspiration from close to home.
“I would definitely say Kendell. I competed against her at my first year at the NCAA championships. I think she’s younger than me, but she scored over 6000 pretty young. That was my first time competing against such a good field, and in Kendell I just saw the possibilities. She’s always been one that’s been amazing.”
Williams, Bougard and Cook are the current crop in a long line of US heptathletes, the queen of whom is of course Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a figure synonymous with the soap-opera drama and glamour of track and field in the eighties. With a buzz in Talence of how near Nafi Thiam might be able to get to 7291, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask a US heptathlete how cool it was to follow in the footsteps of such a legendary multieventer
“It is cool. I’ve never met her, but my coach in college competed against her. That whole eighties era was such a dream for track and field. It was so popular then. Even for the popular athletes now, it’s a bit like ‘uh…what’s the heptathlon?’ Her score is some crazy thing that I don’t really think about. But I never thought that I would be where I am now. So…you never know!” she grins.
I mention the Santa Monica Track Club, a few miles up the road from where Riley currently trains, and we reminisce about the famous sunset logo emblazoned on the chests of Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell back in the day. “These were the LeBron James of the era; everyone knew their names. it’s crazy – now people don’t even know it.”
There’s a palpable sense of pride as she speaks about the heptathlon world record belonging to an American. And until September last year on the track just a few yards from where we sat, the decathlon world record also belonged to an American.
“When Kevin Mayer broke the world record, it was amazing to see. But for the US…sorry Ashton! I’ve met Ashton Eaton, taken pictures with him, and now it’s like he’s old news!” she laughs, at the absurdity of Ashton being anything other than a legend. “But now I’m hoping to see a heptathlon world record and see Nafi do it. If I was at the meet when that happened that would be amazing.”
And as Nafi attacked the heptathlon the next day, achieving the highest jump ever registered in a heptathlon, the whispers were indeed whether a world record was on the cards. But an elbow injury during the javelin put paid to that – for now. We talked a little about Riley’s own expectations for the weekend, and the season at large.
“Putting up that 6100 score – until then it always felt like you were chasing that 6000 mark. But now that I’ve done it, I don’t want to feel like I’m chasing a mark. I feel like I’ve proven to myself what I’m capable of. I definitely want to score over 6000 again, which I’m 100% capable of. I don’t want it to be a fluke.
On the Talence field, which included a host of World and European medallists including Laura Ikauniece, Solene Ndama, Anouk Vetter and Antoinetta Nan Djimou:
“This is the best field I’ve ever competed in. This will probably be the biggest meet that I’ve ever competed in, with the biggest crowds. It takes me back to that time when I first competed at the NCAAs. I was one of the “lower” people coming in, and just seeing that field was amazing. And then to see what was possible – it’s the same feeling with this. I just want to enjoy it. I don’t feel any pressure. I feel like I have nothing to lose, I’m still training for the national championships. So, this is really just practice for that.”
Riley embarks on the USATF heptathlon on Saturday 27th and Sunday 28th July 2019 and you can find the details here, and follow the results on Decathletes of Europe on Instagram.
Photos: Multistars, Daniele Morandi, Michel Fisquet Team Photo Marseille