Updated: May 24, 2014 at 12:36 pm
As more than 1,000 graduates donned black caps and gowns for the University of Colorado-Colorado Spring's 40th annual and largest-ever graduation Friday, one notable summa cum laude grad was hitting the weight room in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Austin Cook, 22, of Chapel Hill, earned a bachelor's degree in biology at UCCS, but chose not to walk at graduation. Cook's decision wasn't unique; nearly 200 UCCS grads did not participate in this year's ceremony.
But his circumstances were. Cook is a 2016 Olympic hopeful in judo, and he decided to go back home to North Carolina this week before returning to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
In order to qualify for the Olympics, Cook must achieve a top 22 ranking by the International Judo Federation. The first qualifying tournament is the Judo World Cup, June 14-15 in El Salvador, and Cook is training for it. Last year, he won the USA Judo Senior National Championships.
"I think it's a realistic possibility that I'm going to be in the Olympics," Cook said Thursday night.
On the cusp of earning a spot to compete on the world's biggest stage, Cook continues to stay grounded, a product of the humble road he took to Colorado Springs.
An undefeated high school wrestler, Cook suffered a torn meniscus and made the transition to Japanese martial arts at age 15.
"I did judo and fell in love with it," he said.
A year later, he won gold at the U.S. Judo Junior Nationals, which earned him an invitation to the Olympic Training Center. He moved to Colorado Springs on his own the next year, balancing a rigorous training schedule and a full-time job with homesickness. Cook would lift early in the morning, work a day job at Panera Bread and practice judo at night. Most of the OTC's judo athletes were in their 20s, and heavier and stronger than Cook.
"It was really tough," Cook said. "I was gone from home for the first time, so it was emotionally heartbreaking, and at the same time I was getting beat up by these grown men."
After one year in the Springs, Cook enrolled at UCCS, trading in his Panera Bread apron for a backpack, while continuing to train at the OTC.
"UCCS was the perfect fit," Cook said. "I really fell in love with the school."
At UCCS, Cook's work schedule became busier than ever. On top of his school work, he worked as a science tutor, hospital scribe and pharmacist's assistant, all while training with Olympic athletes.
"It was a crazy, crazy four years," Cook said. "Luckily, I got to accomplish what I wanted."
Crazy might be an understatement.
Cook recalled a stretch at the end of his sophomore year when finals week coincided with his last week of training before the U.S. Judo Open. His days would begin with 5 a.m. lifting sessions and finish at 2 a.m. when his five-hour hospital shift ended. Cook walked away from that two-week stretch with a 4.0 semester GPA and a gold medal at one of the country's most prestigious judo tournaments.
"It kind of made me a man," Cook said. "It made me realize that if I wanted something, I could get it if I put forth the effort."
Cook credits the support he received from his professors and mentors at UCCS.
"I was in an environment that encouraged me to never be complacent," he said. "They've allowed me to pursue all of these things and reach the highest I was able to reach."
After graduating with a GPA above 3.9 and receiving high marks on his medical school entrance test, Cook received early admission into the medical schools at Duke and Stanford universities. Last week, he chose Stanford, although his spot will be deferred to 2016 so he can first pursue his Olympic dreams.
"The motto of (UCCS) is 'reach higher,'" Cook said. "I think sometimes people are afraid to reach as high as they can because they don't think they're capable of it, or they don't think they can balance as many things, but I really have kind of embraced the motto of the school to reach higher, not just in one area, but in every area of life."
"Reach higher" was a theme among Friday's commencement speakers at the World Arena ceremony as well. Unlike most schools that fly out comedians, politicians or athletes to talk to graduates, UCCS' two Student Achievement Award winners - Chris Richey of Colorado Springs and Paige Wilson of Denver - provided the congratulatory remarks. Richey spoke of how "all great things are built upon the foundation of little things," and Wilson lauded the school for welcoming her as a first-generation minority college student.
Wilson's case was far from the exception. When Chancellor Pamela Shockley-Zalabak asked for students to rise if they were their family's first college graduate, nearly a quarter of the students stood, drawing a large round of applause.