Natalie Cook has been out long enough to appreciate just how many changes the LGBTQ rights movement has achieved.
In fact, the Sydney 2000 Olympic gold medal beach volleyball player has lived some of those changes herself.
As Cook recently detailed in an interview with the Herald Sun’s Robert Craddock — as World Pride takes hold in Sydney this week — she actually participated in two wedding ceremonies to her partner, Sarah Maxwell, a decade apart.
Cook met Canada native Maxwell as a fellow beach volleyballer and the two began a relationship 21 years ago. When they decided to get married in 2008, they had to hold the ceremony in New Zealand because of Australia’s gay-marriage ban.
“Our first wedding in Queenstown, [New Zealand] wasn’t legal,” Cook later admitted. “We could have done a civil union over there, but it’s only relevant if you live there so we chose to do a ceremony with our friends and family.”
Finally, when Australia legalized gay marriage in 2017, Cook and Maxwell decided to make their union legally recognized. The two held their second wedding ceremony the next year in Maleny, Queensland.
Besides making their marriage official, Cook emphasized that they decided to hold the second ceremony “more so to honor the hard work at the front line of those who got [the gay marriage act] passed.”
Her life in 2023 feels like a world apart from when she first realized she was attracted to women, at age 15 in 1990. Cook said that until that point, she avoided the question by devoting herself to beach volleyball and her studies.
Because the 1990s were a much harsher era to be LGBTQ, Cook endured bullying from her classmates mostly in silence.
“It used to drive me,” she observed, “I was a bit like the US Navy policy: ‘Don’t speak, don’t tell.’”
After nearly a decade, her beach volleyball partner Kerri Pottharst finally brought Cook out of her shell and encouraged her to come out publicly and be comfortable as herself just before the Sydney Olympic Games.
Over 20 years after her greatest athletic achievement, Cook and Maxwell are legally married. Cook has come a long way from the days where she felt the need to be silent about her true self.
“The big thing is it is now celebrated,” Cook said reflecting on the passage of time. “It was hidden and tolerated and accepted but now it is celebrated and that evolution has been great to watch.”