Pottharst and Cook: Defying n... | Australian Olympic Committee

Pottharst and Cook: Defying naysayers all the way to Olympic gold

Author imageAOC24 Sep 2020
Natalie Cook and Kerri Pottharst of Australia celebrate after their win over Brazil to win the Gold medal, in the final of the Women's Beach Volleyball at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, held at the Beach Volleyball Centre in Bondi, Sydney,Australia. DIGIT

On September 25, 2000, it was elation on Bondi Beach when Kerri Pottharst and Natalie Cook won beach volleyball gold. 

Their decision to join forces was a controversial one, but they defied all who doubted them, beating the Brazilian World Champions for Olympic gold.

The duo played eight Olympic Games between them, two as a partnership, but Pottharst’s introduction to the sport was one that happened due to misfortune, or so she thought.

Pottharst began playing indoor volleyball at the age of 15 and already at 6 ft tall, she was the perfect fit.

She played in the National Team for 10 years, where she had a stint as the team Captain, but was forced to retire from the indoor court due to injury. 

“I didn’t finish indoor volleyball of my own accord, I actually wrecked my knee playing for my state in the National Tournament and after about a year I just couldn’t play anymore,” the triple Olympian said.

She took up beach volleyball as a form of rehab, with the sand expected to put less stress on her knees.

At the time, giving up the sport she loved was a hard blow for Pottharst, but little did she know that as one door closed, another would open leading her to Olympic gold.

“I didn’t even think I’d be able to play beach volleyball,” Pottharst said.

“I’d ruptured both my cruciate and medial ligament and wrecked my meniscus and cartilage, so my leg was basically hanging from my knee joint, there wasn’t really anything supporting it.

“It was a long road back and I spent a year trying to play indoor again, but the floorboards were just too hard. That was when I decided to take up beach volleyball and had no idea how much easier and more fun it was.”

While Pottharst was finding her feet trading floorboards for sand, a young up-and-comer, Natalie Cook was making waves in the beach volleyball world.

The teenager had an athletic background, competing in swimming, basketball, netball, vigoro (a sport combining elements of cricket and tennis), track and field, she said she was a PE teacher’s dream.

“One day, I saw a sign and I’m very big on signs,” Cook, a five-time Olympian said.

“There was a poster on the school notice board that said, ‘Volleyball trip to Canada and America,’ and that piece of paper changed my life.

“I raced upstairs to the PE department and said, ‘What’s volleyball?’ and I started indoor volleyball for that reason.

“In 1993 when they announced that Sydney had won the 2000 Olympic bid, they also announced that beach volleyball would debut as an Olympic sport at Atlanta 1996 and that’s when I made the transition.”

As junior, Cook’s ability piqued the interest of Olympian Anita Palm, who scouted her and became her beach volleyball partner.

“Anita Palm started the sport in this country and picked me up as a junior when she travelled to Brisbane, scouting for a beach volleyball partner,” Cook said.

Meanwhile, Pottharst had just come back from rehabbing her knee and had begun playing the sandy game.

“Because it was so new, we ran our own sport as athletes and we didn’t have any coaches so for many reasons, that pairing didn’t work out and I was on the lookout for a new partner,” Cook said.

“I knew I wanted to play with Kerri, so I tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘Do you want to play with me?’”

It took a lot of guts for teenage Cook to approach Pottharst, who was already a world-renowned volleyball veteran.

“I was only 18 at the time and Kerri was the best indoor player in Australia by far,” Cook said. 

“She had a professional contract in Italy and I was still a junior at the Australian Institute of Sport where Kerri would come in and talk to us, so tapping her on the shoulder back then was really intimidating.”

“I remember when Nat came up to me, we were in Perth and I’d just finished training with my partner, who was also one of my best friends,” Pottharst explained.

“We were doing okay on the World Tour and were having fun, but at that point I didn’t know where it was going to lead. I knew that the Olympics were in the mix, but we weren’t sure if we would make it.

“When Nat asked if I’d partner with her, it really made me think, maybe there is another option?”

Pottharst was advised against teaming up with Cook, due to her inexperience and the risk involved.

“The week after Nat approached me, I spoke with a lot of people about it and they said, ‘Don’t make the switch, you know what you have with Annette, you’ll be the second team in Australia, you can qualify for the Olympics.’

“They told me that partnering with Natalie would be a real unknown and too risky,” she continued.

“Most people at that point would’ve said, ‘let’s be safe and not risk it,’ but I had something in my gut telling me the opposite,” Pottharst continued.

“I knew how much desire Nat had, she had this grit and determination that I really liked and physically, she was ten years younger than me and taller than my last partner. 

“She had this youth and energy that meant there were so many more pros than cons and even though it took me a while to make the decision, I ended up going against what most people thought I should do, and I made the switch.”

Although the new pairing was confident in their partnership, they had the tough job of proving themselves to those around them. They were even given an ultimatum to prove they were the real deal.

“We realised very quickly that we had made a great decision,” Pottharst continued.

“But even our federation didn’t back us at the beginning. They told us that if we didn’t place in the top five at the next couple of events, they weren’t going to give us any funding.

“That was the type of motivation Nat and I needed, because we needed more funding and top five meant more prize money, plus, we both have the kind of personalities that when someone tells you that you can’t do something, proving them wrong becomes your priority.”

“It really makes the hairs stick up on the back of your neck, because people were telling Kerri to stick with what you know, stay within your comfort zone, you could be the second best team in Australia and that would’ve been a red flag to a bull for Kerri,” Cook added.

“She would’ve thought, ‘Second team? What? How can I be the first team?’ which I think sparked something inside of her.

“I was an 18 year-old junior but I was pretty assertive and aggressive, I was confident and I knew I had really good volleyball skills so if people had put a bet on us back then, they’d be rich by now.”

Cook and Pottharst finished fifth in their next two tournaments, so with the anxiety of not receiving funding out of the way, they were able to focus on preparing for their first Games together in 1996.

At Atlanta, the duo won bronze behind two Brazilian combinations. Both Brazilian teams had recently been World Champions and the podium finish was enough to cement that Pottharst and Cook were a formidable pairing with the potential to become Olympic Champions.

The same year they won silver at the World Championships and gold at the World Tour Event in Japan, but despite their success together, in 1997 the pair decided to part ways.

“I think there is always a honeymoon period in a beach volleyball partnership,” Pottharst said.

“After a few tournaments together, we started to lose events here and there which made us look at each other and say ‘This is what I think you’re doing wrong, these are your faults,’ and like any relationship as soon as you go down that rabbit hole it’s really difficult to stay positive and motivated,” she continued.

“We did go through a lot of ups and downs, there was a 10-year age gap and we are very different as individuals, so where I am more social and would want to go out after tournaments, Nat would want to stay in. I’d get in late when Nat would want to be in bed early and wake up early.”

“For us, it wasn’t about just managing our beach volleyball careers, it was about managing life travelling together as a partnership,” Cook agreed.

The pair played separately for two years, with Pottharst teaming up with a player who had just come out of the National Indoor Team, while Cook went on a personal development journey.

Due to injuries there were shifts in pairings and a year out from the Sydney Games, the duo realised  if they wanted to win gold on home soil, they couldn’t do it without each other.

“When partnership swaps started happening in the lead up to Sydney 2000, Natalie and I were sneaking looks at each other, like we both knew this was the time to come back together,” Pottharst said.

“We were allowed to switch partners at the last minute for a World Tour event, so we paired up and the moment we stepped out onto the sand to warm up we knew it was the right decision.

“It was crazy, we were just looking at each other smirking at how great it felt and we ended up coming second in that event, so having that break was the best thing that could’ve happened because we came back together much more attuned to what we needed to bring to the team as individuals.”

Determined to win Olympic gold on Bondi Beach, the duo’s preparation looked much different to Atlanta 1996. 

They enlisted the services of both a volleyball coach, a personal trainer and a success coach.

The success coach was considered a left of field addition to their preparation, but during her two years apart from Pottharst, Cook had focused most of her energy on mental strength and preparation, which she brought back to the partnership. 

She knew that this would give them the edge that they needed.

“The personal development I was going through, Kerri became part of in our last 6-12 months before Sydney 2000,” she said.

“So on top of our usual training, things like fire-walking, glass-walking, blind folded rock climbing and tandem biking were part of our preparation.

“We went on a three-day camp to Stradbroke Island and participated in the gold medal excellence program where we brought into each other’s needs and desires and mapped out how we were going to achieve it.

“We both understood why we were doing it, so it became this really tight unit and it was just so special feeling like we were in this vortex where everything was going our way.

“We had worked out all our little frustrations, started looking at the bigger picture and understood each other’s motives,” Cook continued.

“Our games just complimented each other so well, Kerri was the fastest server in the world and I was the aggressive attacking spiker and I got myself into trouble when I’d try to be as good as her at what she did.

“Kerri was really the gun and the power based athlete and my job was to steer the boat in the right direction so I really had to learn how to complement her skills while understanding and elevating my game, which was more around strategy, shot-making, cat and mouse and positioning.”

When Sydney 2000 rolled around, they were ready.

The pair were dominant throughout the competition, winning every round and on September 25, 2000, which was later named ‘Magic Monday,’ they defeated the world number one ranked team, Brazil’s Adriana Behar and Shelda Bede in two very tight sets: 12-11, 12-10.

The injuries, sacrifices, their split and reunification was all worth it and the significance of what they achieved hit Pottharst when she fell to her knees with her head in her hands, embraced on the sand by Cook after the final point.

“I think if I hadn’t collapsed on the sand, Natalie probably would have run around the stadium dancing and throwing things into the air,” Pottharst laughed.

“But, as the last ball landed out, I followed it to the line and realised it was going to go out and from that point, it was just a kaleidoscope of emotions.

“I think the first one for me was almost fear,” she continued.

“I was almost afraid to look up at the crowd because that’s just how I had to perform and I’d spent so many years training myself to block it out because I knew if I let that noise in, I wouldn’t be able to perform the way I wanted to.

“It was that constant focus, of being in the zone so when that last ball landed out that cone of silence just shattered down around me and that’s why my head was down in the sand, I was afraid of looking at people and I was almost afraid of looking at Nat.

“She was bashing me on the back saying, ‘come on, let’s celebrate,’ but I had to have that moment of feeling overwhelmed. 

“After that I just thought, ‘We did it, I can’t believe it,’ we’d been through so much to get there.”

The difference in their personalities played out on the sand, in front of an energetic home crowd. 

“When I realised we’d won, I was the complete opposite,” Cook explained.

“If I was playing in my own tunnel focus, I would have gone crazy. I had to open up and bring the crowd into my team, the commentator, my family who I knew were sitting in the back-left corner.

“Hearing the shouts and orchestrating the crowd, because we’d never experienced 10,000 Aussies screaming for us before.

“I had to learn how to deal with a home crowd because when you win a point, it's ecstatic, it’s like they could blow the roof off the stadium but then when you lost a point it felt like they  buried us 20 feet into the sand because of the disappointment.

“I decided that I had to orchestrate the crowd and even that disappointment because that’s what helped me feel in control, powerful and strong.

“Kerri and I handled it very differently, but we were very close. I tried to pull her up and then we had a big cuddle in the middle which was great.”

Even now, Cook and Pottharst say they’re still as close as they were 20 years ago.
“We’re just like sisters,” Pottharst said.

“We live in different places and will have our moments where we roll our eyes at each other, but at the same time there is no one I respect more in our sport than Natalie.

“I am inspired by everything she’s done and really look up to her and I know we have a bond that will never be broken.

“We went through so much together to achieve what we did, and there is nothing that could replace that.”

Cook agreed, saying their bond is still very much intact and her admiration for her former teammate continues to grow.

“It’s been 27 years [since they met], so it definitely does feel like we have a sisterly bond, but I think more so now it’s that admiration for each other around what we do off the court.

"We both have a desire to give back. Our desire to keep elevating the standards of our Aussie athletes is unparalleled.

“We’re very driven and focused on what we can do to help and Kerri is a great example of an Aussie who has done great things in her own field but has also gone on to help so many others.

“She’s a coach too, she still loves to get out on the sand and help the next generation whereas I’m like, ‘Oh no thanks, no more sunscreen or sand between my toes’,” Cook laughed.

“But, Kerri will go out there and teach them about jump serving and even now, 20 years later, she will do it and put the ball exactly where she wants it and I’d still jaw dropping the level of her inherent skill.

“She’s one of the best beach volleyballers to ever play the game.”

Liana Buratti

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