Football to Finish Line

By Teresa Hammond

Steve Cooper is not one to shy away from challenge.

As luck would have it for many, however, Cooper sees challenge as opportunity waiting to happen and he’s more than happy to help. The outdoor enthusiast has kayaked, hiked, climbed and ran countless terrains both solo as well as to aid others. He has also hiked Half Dome a minimum of three times a year for the past 20 years.

“That’s been my passion for many years,” he said of the 18-mile round trip hike to the summit of the Yosemite landmark.

“I’m a coach at heart,” the former college football player said. “I love helping people set goals and achieve those goals.”

As a result of his passion, Cooper has accompanied individuals, as well as families and even a group of 60 people – complete with barbecue at the top – for those interested in a “Do the Dome” experience. One hike he has only done once, however, was a journey to the top of the Dome that took over 18 hours to complete. He took that hike with lifelong friend Steve Gokey.

Gokey is visually impaired.

The two men first became friends in the early 1970s at Modesto Junior College. Cooper played for the school football team and Gokey assisted with the team.

“I liked all sports,” Gokey said of his early love for team athletics. “I like the camaraderie that it brings.”

Cooper shared an appreciation for his friend’s keen knowledge of the sport back in their college days and from that a friendship was born.

Close to 30 years later, the two men once again crossed paths at an area grocery store. With his enthusiasm for the Dome at its prime, Cooper invited Gokey to go with him.

Gokey agreed to join his friend on one condition; if he hiked the Dome then Cooper would join him in his passion – marathon running. Cooper agreed.

“I ran one 25 years earlier as a dare,” Cooper said of accepting the 26.2 mile challenge. “My 50th birthday was coming up, so that seemed like a neat thing to do.”

“I just like the challenge,” Gokey said of marathon running. “I like doing it. I like just pushing it to the max. I like to just push and push and push.”

Born two and a half months premature, the marathon runner has never had sight. He trains on a treadmill and runs courses with the help of guides. Thirteen years ago, after the duo completed Half Dome, they took on the California International Marathon in Sacramento and Cooper served as Gokey’s guide.

“I had run close to 10 (marathons) before partnering with Coop,” Gokey said.

To date the men have completed eight marathons together and close to 40 other races of varying distances.

When the two men began running together they used a tether, which affected Gokey’s form and did not keep him in an upright position.

“His mechanics were terrible,” Cooper said of Gokey’s form.

Two years later, under the guidance of a friend they began using PVC poles, five feet in length, to aid with guiding Gokey through the course.

“The five foot length was very scientific,” Cooper said of the guiding tool. “We took one 10-foot PVC pole and cut it in half.”

The two chuckled at the discovery, which has now served them well for over 11 years of racing.

“It is critical though,” Cooper said of the spacing. “You get it too short and you kick each other.”

While it would seem the dark glasses and white PVC poles might make Gokey’s visual impairment obvious, the two men shared numerous stories of snarky comments, as well as accusations of cheating by other runners.

As testament to their light-heartedness and zest for adventure, such interactions are taken in stride and simply added to the story book of adventures.

“What a great thrill,” Gokey explained of crossing a marathon finish line. “Just that whole finish and having accomplished that. The blindness has nothing to do with that. It’s just a tremendous accomplishment.”

Now a well-accomplished marathoner himself, Cooper agreed with his friend on the thrill of crossing the finish line and the spirit of the crowd upon seeing Gokey come through the chute.

As one would imagine, running as a guide with poles in each hand takes on a completely different life than that of a traditional race.

“It’s a challenge,” Cooper said. “It is a challenge. It’s like driving a bus. You have to really anticipate ahead of time. I do a lot of talking because I have to.”

“I try to just block out all of the pain as much as possible,” Gokey said of race day and the 26.2 mile distance. “Blind people try and use visualization. Except our visualization is sound. When I’m running on the treadmill (training), I visualize what it’s going to sound like at the end.”

As for the Half Dome adventure, which prompted the start of this partnership, Gokey wasn’t sold.

“I wasn’t impressed by the view,” he said, laughing of the 18-hour journey from start to finish.

Gokey noted that in a marathon, you cross the finish and you’re done; whereas with Half Dome once you get up, you still have to climb back down.

And while Cooper continues to guide his friend through the courses, he remains equally – or more so – committed to taking people up the Dome.

“My proudest moments have been helping others to succeed and find joy,” Cooper said. “Every adventure produced humorous and inspirational memories and my hope would be to share that with others.” ■

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