PACIFIC OCEAN (NNS) -- 3, 2, 1... "Beep." As the timer begins all you hear are his shallow breaths, sweat begins to form on his brow and his shoes grip the non-skid. It's time to give it all he has, ignore the pain and push until his body demands rest. This is just another day in the life of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 97's Command Master Chief Jesse Cook.
At 41 years old, difficult workouts become a normal - even invited - way of life. After 20 plus years serving in the United States Navy, it's more than just a hobby; it's a passion. Master Chief Cook turned himself into an athlete. An athlete that proves no matter the age or setting, whether in the depths of the sea in a submarine or on board a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, nothing will deter his physical capability.
Not even the heart attack that nearly derailed his career at 19-years-old.
"In 1999, I suffered a tachycardia, which put my heart into cardiac arrest. I was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome," said Cook. "I was able to have a corrective procedure and continue my naval service under a medical waiver.
"I have always been into fitness and athletics, such as baseball, cross-country, and soccer," he said. "In 2010 I was introduced to a style of fitness that was functional, intense, and trained you to be ready for the unknown. Every service member has to be ready for the unknown."
Looking at life from a hospital bed and knowing that changes must be made would be challenging for anyone. Cook had to ask himself 'What happens from here? How can I keep this from happening again? What about my family?' Despite the challenge, he was determined to tackle these questions head on, with no excuse and a focused mindset.
"After both my children were born I realized I needed to be around a lot longer," said Cook. "I needed to be sure I would not be decrepit in old age and have to rely on my children for support, so I found my workout."
Cook began to understand his potential, what he could accomplish, and how much he had left "in the tank" to achieve things that he never thought were possible. This motivated him to test his abilities through competition. The Kill Cliff Granite Games provided Cook with the grounds to prove himself. As an unknown competitor and part of a team of three, Cook went into the competition to see what he was made of, have fun, and show others that anything is possible no matter the age.
"I tried out for the Granite Games last year with a friend. I was looking for a high-level competition to prove my hard work had paid off," said Cook. "It did; I qualified as an individual masters athlete [age range 40-45 years-old], but decided to compete in the team competition instead."
The team competition broke down into a series of events spanning a couple of days, giving the athletes a taste of the unknown in every event. Any athlete could come in and win the competition. Cook credits being well-rounded as an athlete as the only factor between finishing on the podium and going home.
Workouts for the team competition consisted of variations of Olympic, powerlifting, and gymnastics movements, all broken up between each team member. All movements have to be done within various time limits and repetition schemes consisting of AMRAP [as many rounds as possible], and one rep [repetition] with maximum weight.
"We went into the competition as an unproven team, but finished the weekend in 11th place overall, which was a huge accomplishment for three unknown athletes," said Cook.
Going into 2018, Cook looks to improve on his performance despite periods of time at sea and an upcoming Carrier Strike Group 3 deployment onboard John C. Stennis. The challenges of preparing for competition while aboard a Navy ship are unique, but are a testament to Cook's determination and fortitude.
"Being on John C. Stennis is very new to me. I have been a submarine Sailor for over 20 years, and right now it's about finding a daily routine where my Sailors and my command's mission come first, then in my spare time, my training," said Cook. "The space is much more than I am used to, but the movement of the ship has its own unique aspect.
"When you have 245 lbs. over your head, any slight movement is felt throughout your whole body. As long as I slowly work to the weights that I am used to, my overall strength and muscle stability will be better for it."
Cook has already begun training to return for the 2018 Kill Cliff Granite Games, which starts with an online qualification process beginning June 13, ending July 2nd. Each week Cook will have to record himself completing a new workout and submit the video for judging. At the end of the three weeks the top 10 athletes in each category are sent invites to the games.
"It would mean the world to qualify for the Granite Games two years in a row. The qualifying field is huge [over 10,000 athletes] and they only take the top 10," Cook said.
Being a positive example for those around him demonstrates the leadership Cook has developed over time. Showing how any dream can be a reality with hard work is something he does not take lightly.
"I believe in being a role model for my Sailors and my children," said Cook. "Having them see me, and supporting me while I am on that stage, presents a lot of positive pressure for me to succeed in any way."
Regardless of his personal accomplishments in fitness, the larger lesson matters to Cook even more. He sees giving his all in competition as a direct correlation to the Navy's mission and his Sailors coming home safely.
"My first priority every day is my crew and my command's mission," said Cook. "What I would like to impress is there is always time to work on anything that you truly love to do. You can always make time for that; mine just happens to be fitness and competition."
Cook believes that pushing his body to the limit, seeing what the human machine is capable of, and testing the limits of his mental toughness has created resilience that has carried throughout multiple areas of his life, not just fitness.
"I like the look on people's faces when they find out my age and rank and they see what I am doing. I do like proving to my Sailors and others around that you can make time to work on your fitness at any level and not have your work or job suffer."
"I still look back and am proud of myself for how far I have come and constantly ask myself, 'how much more do I have? What else can I do?'"
The "Warhawks" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 97 fly the F/A-18E Super Hornet, and are based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California. They most recently deployed to the South China Sea with Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 3 aboard the Nimitz-class Aircraft Carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). The Warhawks are currently training in preparation for their next scheduled deployment with CSG 3 in the second half of 2018. The squadron was established in 1967 and has conducted operations around the world.
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