Insight Sport: Natalie Cook talks about the evolution of the gay athlete and why bullies only made her stronger

As Natalie Cook talks about how life has changed for gay couples, she reflects on the days of her wedding, which took place not just in different countries, but also in different worlds.

There were two of them with a difference of 10 years … with the same spouse.

Olympic beach volleyball champion Cook and Sarah Maxwell, who represented Canada in the same sport, have been partners for 21 years. Their devotion to each other hasn’t changed… but the world around them has.

Their first wedding took place in New Zealand in 2008, when Australia was still nine years away from legalizing same-sex marriage.

Their second wedding, in the picturesque town of Maleny, Queensland, took place a decade later and was a silent salute to all those who fought so hard for equality in marriage.

“Our first wedding in Queenstown was illegal,” Cooke said. “We could have a civil union there, but that only matters if you live there, which is why we decided to have the ceremony with our friends and family.

“We created our own text document and signed our own verbal certificate, developed our own oaths.

“When I told my father that we were getting married again, and the first marriage was illegal, he was upset because he did not know.

“As we got to 2018, we went through it again after the same-sex marriage law was passed. Moreover, to honor the hard work on the front lines of those who have gone through it.”

Cook is regarded as one of the most affable, outgoing and outgoing sports stars.

As a lively guest speaker, she entertains the crowd with her brash passion and wittily mentions her sexuality, but never felt the need to shout it from the rooftops.

Her path of self-discovery was subtle and had occasional harsh experiences.

“In 1990 – a long time ago – I was 15 and I realized that I was inclined towards a female assessment. Before that, I was focused on sports and school.
“Then whispers went through my head like ‘you don’t have a boyfriend. I talked with many boys.

“Part of it was mockery, but I heard it more like a whisper. My genetic makeup and my family background was such that I didn’t pay too much attention to it.

“But I can understand how people who may not be as strong physically and emotionally can struggle. It will really affect their mental health. He used it to drive me. I was a bit like the US Navy’s “don’t talk, don’t talk” policy.

“It’s really changed. It’s probably been driven by social media. It’s been a steady change over the last three to five years, and it’s changed a lot in the last year.”

Cooke has had a few short, blunt exchanges with her 2000 Sydney gold medal winning teammate Kerry Pothurst that seem rude and punishing but are actually a sign of a really deep friendship.

“We were in a close team of two and stayed in the same room. Kerry said: “You walk like that, you talk like that, you act like that,” and I answered: “What is this?”

“She was trying to help me extract (the fact that I was gay). I would tell her to back off. But she tried to guide me and do me a favor.

“I guess I had my first girlfriend in 1997. I told Kerry I was gay before Sydney.

“Ash Barty realized that in order to be the best athlete, you have to be the happiest person, and I kind of figured it out. I didn’t have to hide anything. I could be myself.

“I never shouted about it from the rooftops. If someone asked me, I was open and said: “This is my partner.” I guess, subconsciously, I didn’t feel safe enough.”

Cooke is delighted that young gay athletes now have far more role models than previous generations, who needed to be proud of themselves and their sexuality.

“I like how it is celebrated, not just accepted. When I was growing up, the barriers were overcome mainly by Martina Navratilova. She coped with a lot, but she never took a step back.

“It’s hard to be someone you can’t see, but Ellen DeGeneres has changed the global game and now we have Casey Dellacua, Sam Stosur in tennis, Erin Phillips in the Women’s AFL and many more.

“The most important thing is that now it is celebrated. It was hidden and tolerated and accepted, but now it is being celebrated and that evolution has been great to watch.”

Originally published as Natalie Cook talks about the evolution of the gay athlete and why bullies only made her stronger