Haley Cooper-Scott enjoys a sport that takes her around the world – especially when it takes her back home.
“I really love the finish line,” said Cooper-Scott, of Spokane, a successful professional triathlete and one of the favorites in Sunday’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene triathlon.
She loves it so much, in fact, that last year, with third place wrapped up, she lingered before the finish line with friends and family. The hugs, kisses and high-fives are memorialized on YouTube.
She also loves the work that gets her there: more than 20 hours of running, bicycling and swimming every week during the competitive season, on top of college classes that one day will make her a doctor of physical therapy.
“I don’t compete because I want to be the best professional triathlete in the world, but because I can,” Cooper-Scott said Tuesday after a workout at Witter Pool in Spokane.
She was that way even as a child. When she and her family moved from San Antonio, 9-year-old Cooper-Scott watched her first Ironman Coeur d’Alene and thought: “I could do that one day.”
After graduating from Gonzaga Prep, she played soccer at Middlebury College in Vermont. A torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in college turned out to be just a detour. Before her senior year, she ran in the New York Marathon, then moved to New Zealand in 2002 “to study frogs” as part of a Fulbright student exchange program.
Midway through a four-year stay, she entered a women’s triathlon event “on a whim.” That same year, she came home and jumped into some races “but hadn’t really trained and didn’t know what I was doing.”
In the meantime, good things kept happening when she came home. She met her future husband, Aaron, during a brief visit to Spokane in 2005. The place: a bicycle shop.
“I hadn’t actually spoken to him,” Cooper-Scott recalled. “I ran across the street to the post office, and he had left a note on my car to ask if I wanted to go on a bike ride.
A year later, after returning for good, she called him back, and they were married in 2009.
Aaron, a doctor who’s helping build a health care system in the new nation of South Sudan, was expected back from Africa on Friday.
Cooper-Scott called her first Ironman Coeur d’Alene performance “really bad.” But she competed the next year as an amateur in the Wildflower Triathlon in California, which doubled in 2007 as the national professional championship. Afterward, she realized, “I would have made money had I been racing in the pro division.”
A run of strong performances in 2007, including fifth in her age group in the world championship Hawaii Ironman, qualified Cooper-Scott for her pro elite card. “At that point I just went with it,” she said.
Her suitcases went along too, all over the world. “I don’t know why it’s such an obsession, but I figured that if I was that passionate about it, I could make money at the same time.”
Ever since, the 31-year-old Cooper-Scott has balanced sports, studies, marriage – and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“The next step to improving would be doing it full time. I’ve never really committed myself to being a full-time triathlete,” Cooper-Scott admits. “And I don’t know that I want to do that.
“What I lack right now in my race preparation is not so much the training, but the recovery.”
Right now, after running 20 miles in the morning, “I’ll down a smoothie, jump in the shower and then you’re in class all day.”
She has to remind herself to keep packing food onto her lean, 5-foot-10-inch frame: 1,000 calories at every sitting, plus snacks when she’s on a bicycle. The daily total is between 4,000 and 5,000 calories.
“I get sick of eating sometimes, but I have to be very conscientious when I’m riding. I try to take in 300-calorie gels and sports drinks, and that gets disgusting.
“After that, all I want a giant bowl of macaroni and cheese.”
But more than that, she wants to see the finish line this weekend, lined with friendly faces.
“It’s quite a community affair,” Cooper-Scott said. “And the truth is, Ironman Coeur d’Alene is one of the reasons I do the sport in the first place.”