Little could he have imagined, though, that the competition held annually in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, would prove touching, meaningful, and beyond-belief inspiring and remain ingrained in his consciousness a decade later.
The namesake of the event is Cody St. John, who grew up in Upstate New York and later Maryland and was lured to the West by its beauty, ambiance, and recreational opportunities. Once there, he quickly became a popular, highly acclaimed, and well-respected ski patroller and snowboarder whose base of operations was the Steamboat Springs Ski Resort located high in the Rocky Mountains roughly 160 miles northwest of Denver.
“I never knew Cody,” said Cooke, a Virginia Military Institute graduate, Upper School history teacher since 2012, and director of Outdoor Collegiate. “I wasn’t there when he was there, but I knew he was an impactful member of the community.”
Tragedy struck in April 2007. While on his way to his nursing school orientation at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Cody was severely injured in an automobile accident on Highway 127 near the Colorado-Wyoming line and died shortly thereafter. He was 29 years old.
Several months later, his grieving family established the Cody St. John Foundation
, whose mission is two-fold: to provide scholarship aid for professional ski patrollers who are pursuing medical training and to advocate for organ donation.
Cody, you see, was a registered donor.
“Every year (starting in 2009), they do Cody’s Challenge, which is a randonnée ski race,” Cooke said of the fundraiser which supports the Cody St. John Memorial Scholarship. “His family comes out. His ski patrol buddies participate along with people in the community. There’s a real community feel. It’s a group of folks who go out and have this really horrible experience at 11,000 feet.”
When Cooke says “horrible,” he’s speaking at least somewhat in jest. A “horrible” feeling – burning legs, pounding lungs, screaming muscles – is temporary. The gifts, both spiritual and enduring, are life-altering.
Unfamiliar with the term randonnée?
“It’s when you’re on telemark skis where the heel isn’t attached and you hike up the mountain and ski down,” Cooke explained. “Then, you hike up again and ski down, hike up and ski down. It’s exhausting and horrible and rewarding and great.
“We (Cooke and his wife Shayna) were doing a lot of it when we lived out there, but it would have been just us and two or three other people. Now, there’re so many people who do it in Colorado. There’re randonnée ski races all over the West. It’s terrific exercise, usually over some of the hardest terrain in the mountains.”
In 2010, Cody’s Challenge attracted 65 participants. Now, several hundred enter the grueling event and enjoy – as is the custom at the conclusion of many ski, running, and cycling competitions – the after-party with food, libations, and, quite often, live music.
That’s where the truly impactful part of Cooke’s narrative begins.
“We were hanging out with some friends,” he said. “There was a band, and everybody was having a good time. The band seemed odd because it didn’t really match the people at the party. The music genre didn’t quite fit. And we kept noticing the guitarist because he was so into the experience: jamming, eyes closed, really feeling the music. It didn’t make a lot of sense because there weren’t a lot of people dancing. It was mostly people having a good time.”
Finally, the music stopped. Cody’s mother took the stage. The room fell silent.
“She was saying all the things you’d expect her to say,” Cooke recalled, “like, ’I’m so grateful. This is such a wonderful way of honoring my son. He would be so proud. We know that he’s looking down from heaven.’ Then, she caught all of us in the room by surprise when she said, ‘I know that Cody is here today, and he’s appreciating this.’ Then, she introduced the guitarist and said, ‘Cody’s heart is here with us.’ Then, she pointed to another man and said, ‘That’s Cody’s liver.’
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was incredibly moving. It was awesome. The race kicked the crud out of me. I was thinking, I’ll never do anything that horrible again. At that moment, I said, ‘I’ll do this every opportunity I get.’”
Cooke competed just once more, in 2011, then moved to Richmond, his hometown, and hasn’t returned to experience the transformative event. Nevertheless, that day on the mountain and the aftermath have remained with him, indelibly so.
“We’d just finished something very demanding,” he said. “There was this celebratory mood. Then, we got to visualize the impact of organ donation in such a real way, a way I’d never experienced before. I’d always been a (registered) donor, but it’s never been physical. It had always been a concept. All of a sudden, it was there in real form, in this guy jamming out on his guitar, and you realized he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Cody’s sacrifice.”
Cooke shared with me the story of Cody’s amazing life and his own sensitive reflections in early 2014, about 14 months after I received the greatest gift: the pristine liver of an 84-year-old woman, also a registered donor, who suffered a massive stroke while attending church three days before.
The poignancy of my friend’s experience and his compassionate insights resonated deeply with me then.
They’ve resonated as we’ve revisited that conversation on several occasions.
On this weekend, the annual observance of National Donor Sabbath
, and especially today, November 14, the eighth anniversary of the miracle that saved my life, they resonate still.
No doubt, they will resonate forever.