When coaching 12- to 17-year-olds on the Napa Valley Swim Team twice a week, Emily Cocks never hears “I’ll bet you can’t do it” when she asks them to work harder.
After all, they know she’s a professional triathlete who trains as hard as anyone in the world.
“The swimmers definitely ask me about my training and racing,” Cocks said, “and say things like ‘You rode your bike 70 miles today?’ One of my swimmers actually had a triathlon at her middle school this week, so we talked a lot about how to approach the swim and then what to do during the bike and run portions of the race. A few of the swimmers have shown interest in doing open-water swimming, running races and triathlons.
“Ultimately, I just hope they see that training and competitive events can continue after their swimming careers are over. I want them to know they can stay active all their lives, no matter the level.”
Cocks, 35, could have bragged to this day about the success she had as a swimmer in her teens and early 20s. After graduating from Albion High School in the Detroit area, she swam for the University of Michigan from 1995 to 2000, was an Olympic Trials qualifier in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1996 and 2000, and was an assistant coach for the University of Illinois-Chicago swim program from 2007 to 2010.
Swimming has been but a third of each competition since she debuted in her new sport at the 2004 Chicago Triathlon.
She’s raced in 44 triathlons, and will be doing her sixth Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon on Sunday, June 10 in San Francisco.
The 32nd annual race starts with a 7:30 a.m. plunge from the San Francisco Belle ferry into the frigid water just off Alcatraz Island. The 2,000 participants all jump off the boat in less than six minutes to embark on the 1.5-mile swim to Marina Green Beach. Once on land, they peel off their wetsuits, put on shoes, and jog a half-mile to Marina Boulevard to begin a hilly, twisting, 18-mile, out-and-back bike ride that goes through the Presidio and Golden Gate Park.
They then run eight miles, going under the Golden Gate Bridge and down to Baker Beach, turning around in the deep sand and up the steep, 400-step Equinox Sand Ladder, before heading back to Marina Green and thousands of cheering spectators.
Cocks was living in Chicago when she tackled her first Escape From Alcatraz in 2006.
“The hills were extremely challenging for me coming from the Midwest, which is pretty flat, especially near Chicago,” she recalled.
Three years later, a second-place finish among amateurs overall at the Escape From Alcatraz allowed Cocks to qualify for her professional license as a triathlete.
“I always try to approach my races focusing on what I can control, which is my race execution. The course at Escape is a good one for me because the swim is fairly weighted in relation to the bike and run. I am a strong swimmer and that is an advantage at Alcatraz,” she explained. “I believe if I have a great race, I can be in the top five. If that happens, it would be a great result. However, the main goal is to execute a solid race and see where that puts me — the rest is beyond my control — and to have fun. I just love to race.”
Cocks and husband Andy moved to the Napa Valley in March 2010 from Chicago and have loved it.
“We both got tired of the long winters and the lack of outdoor activities. We were also ready to be out of the city and in a more rural area,” she said. “We came out to Napa in 2007 for a friend’s wedding and really enjoyed ourselves. We brought our bikes and explored the area. After that we kept coming back whenever we had an excuse. One day, while cycling on Mount Veeder Road, we saw a for sale sign at a property. It was the first property we looked at, and while we did not buy it, the process started and we closed on our house in June 2009.”
Cocks — who is sponsored by Rolf Prima Wheels, PowerBar, BlueSeventy, Napa River Velo and Focus Bikes — now competes in eight to 10 triathlons a year, and trains all over Napa Valley. She often bikes along Silverado Trail and in Pope Valley, swims at Synergy Wellness Center, and runs at Alston and Skyline parks.
“The Napa Valley is an amazing place to train,” she said. “The weather allows for cycling outside all year-round and there are tons of hills to climb, which is making me a lot stronger. The riding is one of the big reasons we moved out here. Plus, there is a lot of good food to eat to recover after all the training.”
Cocks doesn’t miss her days in the rat race. Right out of college, she worked as an assistant buyer for a retailer and mail-order dealer. Then she went to school to be a paralegal, and did that for six years.
“It was great work, but in the end the long hours were killing me — and I was becoming more serious about triathlons even while an age-grouper,” she said.
She left the paralegal job to become a swim coach in 2007, and dove into triathlons.
“I approached my triathlon training with the same dedication I had for swimming in high school and college, so I kept improving,” she said. “It is fun to get to compete against the best in the world.”
Cocks’ passion for the sport was solidified when she competed in the St. Croix Half Ironman in the U.S. Virgin Islands in May 2009.
She could not train for almost a week because of a respiratory infection. She was able to swim, bike and run a little just before she and Andy flew to the Caribbean island, but was not feeling at her best.
“The St. Croix race is extremely challenging and has one of triathlon’s most well-known climbs on the bike, aptly named ‘The Beast.’ Needless to say, it was tough when you were healthy,” she recalled. “Andy was very worried, but I told him ‘I just want to try and if it takes me seven hours to finish, that is what it will take.”
She didn’t think she’d come close to the 5 hours, 41 minutes it had taken her to complete the course the year before — nor did she tell herself that she had to beat that time.
“I had never started a race with more of an appreciation for just being able to make it to the starting line,” she said. “I felt pretty good and I just wanted to enjoy the day. I rode with a smile the whole time and when I got off for the run I felt great. I ran 14 minutes faster than I had the year before and finished the race 25 minutes faster.
“However, that is not what made me the most proud. I was so happy to have gone out there for the sheer joy of being able to compete. I always think of that experience before I race now, because when you race as a professional it is easy to lose that feeling. There is money on the line and you can worry about other people’s expectations of your performance.”
Visit emilyacocks.blogspot.com to learn more about Cocks’ triathlon career.