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Cross country phenom Natalie Cook has running in her DNA

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Natalie Cook receives the Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Player of the Year trophy on Wednesday. (Courtesy of Gatorade)

Running is deeply embedded in Natalie Cook’s DNA.

Cook’s mother, Melissa Gulli-Cook and her father, Andrew Cook, were All-American distance runners at Texas A&M in the early 2000s. The apple, as the cliché goes, didn’t fall too far from the tree.

Cook, of Flower Mound High School in Flower Mound, Texas, was named the 2021-22 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Player of the Year on Wednesday. Cook joins an impressive group of former award winners who have combined for eight NCAA national championships and five bronze medals.

“I’m in total shock right now. I had no clue I was going to win this amazing award,” Cook said after receiving the trophy. “This is so crazy, it’s insane. It’s such an honor to receive this award, especially considering all the amazing athletes that have won it in the past.”

Cook only needed to look across her dining room table to find her inspiration for running.

Her mother was a champion distance runner for the Aggies, winning four Big 12 conference titles and finishing runner-up in the NCAA 5,000-meter finals in 2001 and 2002. Gulli-Cook qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004 in the 5,000 -and 10,000-meter races, finishing sixth in the 6.2-mile event.

“My mom is amazing. She’s run professionally for New Balance,” Cook said.

Cook’s father is no slouch either. After earning All-American honors in cross country for Texas A&M, he now serves as Natalie’s cross country coach.

The 5-foot-5 senior won two national titles this season, capturing the Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships and the Eastbay Cross Country Championships in back-to-back weekends.

Cook’s winning time of 16:03.93 for the 3.1-mile course at RunningLane championships was 19 seconds faster than that of her nearest competitor and was the second-fastest 5,000-meter time in the event’s history. The Oklahoma State signee became the first prep school girl’s runner to win the two culminating national championship races in a single cross country season.

“At the season’s start, Natalie Cook was a top-20 competitor nationally,” said Doug Binder, Editor-in-Chief. “By December, she was the most dominant prep runner in the country. Her progress through the season propelled her to some amazing achievements. She scorched the RunningLane championships course and then beat the strongest field of the year at the national Eastbay Cross Country Championships, which left no doubt about who was the top gun in 2021.”

Cook also won the Texas Class 6A individual state championship in 16:32.4, leading the Jaguars to their second state title in as many years. She added victories at the Eastbay South Regional championships, the Region 1 championships and the District 6 championships, while placing third at the Woodbridge Classic earlier in the season.

“I think the race at the Woodbridge Classic really gave me a lot of confidence,” Cook said. “The final mile at the Eastbay nationals was so tough, so challenging. It wasn’t my best day. My dad really motivated me during the last mile. He was like ‘Come on, Cook. You got this.’ And that really inspired me.”

(Courtesy of Gatorade)

As a kid, Cook was more of a sprinter than a distance runner. It wasn’t until she reached middle school that she began to show off her distance running chops. As an eighth grader, Cook ran a sub 5-minute mile, and as a freshman, she finished fifth overall at the Texas state cross country championships with a time of 17:03.

“I think after I ran my first competitive mile, my parents realized that maybe I was better suited for distance running,” Cook said with a chuckle.

Cook suffered through a slew of leg injuries during her sophomore and junior seasons, including a broken foot, which made running on uneven surfaces especially painful.

As a result, Cook had to cut down on her training regimen. Unlike other elite runners, who run as many as 60 miles per week, Cook was limited to around 20 miles of training a week. She supplemented her runs with daily cardio workouts on an elliptical machine.

“She doesn’t practice on the grass because she broke her foot,” Andrew Cook said. “She does a lot of her work on the track and on the road. The big thing was just to keep her healthy this season, so we had to under-train and focus on some cardio.”

Healthy for the first time in two years, Cook is looking forward to a productive senior track season. She’s aiming to improve on her personal record mile time of 4:43 this spring.

“I prefer track season to cross country because I feel like I do better on the track,” Cook said. “I’m excited to see what I can do this season if I can stay healthy.”

Andrew Miller has covered high school sports since 1982. Before joining The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier in 1989, he graduated from the University of South Carolina with a degree in journalism.