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Wyvern Airman brings passion, experience to coaching CrossFit

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Cooke, weapons director at the 606th Air Control Squadron and volunteer CrossFit coach, explains the workout of the day to a class at Aviano Air Base, Italy, on Feb. 26, 2020. Cooke has coached CrossFit for two years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Cooke, weapons director at the 606th Air Control Squadron and volunteer CrossFit coach, explains the workout of the day to a class at Aviano Air Base, Italy, on Feb. 26, 2020. Cooke has coached CrossFit for two years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Cooke, weapons director with the 606th Air Control Squadron and volunteer CrossFit coach, demonstrates proper rowing technique to a class at the Wyvern Fitness Center on Aviano Air Base, Italy, Feb. 26, 2020. CrossFit combines gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, and metabolic conditioning into a single fitness sport. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Cooke, weapons director with the 606th Air Control Squadron and volunteer CrossFit coach, demonstrates proper rowing technique to a class at the Wyvern Fitness Center on Aviano Air Base, Italy, Feb. 26, 2020. CrossFit combines gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, and metabolic conditioning into a single fitness sport. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Cooke, weapons director at the 606th Air Control Squadron and volunteer CrossFit coach, coaches an athlete during a CrossFit class at the Wyvern Fitness Center on Aviano Air Base, Italy, Feb. 26, 2020. Cooke coaches the 5:30 a.m. class each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Cooke, weapons director at the 606th Air Control Squadron and volunteer CrossFit coach, coaches an athlete during a CrossFit class at the Wyvern Fitness Center on Aviano Air Base, Italy, Feb. 26, 2020. Cooke coaches the 5:30 a.m. class each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Cooke, weapons director with the 606th Air Control Squadron and volunteer CrossFit coach, demonstrates proper technique to a CrossFit class at the Wyvern Fitness Center on Aviano Air Base, Italy, Feb. 26, 2020. Cooke helps Rene Drake operate CrossFit Aviano, the base’s free CrossFit program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano)

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Eric Cooke, weapons director with the 606th Air Control Squadron and volunteer CrossFit coach, demonstrates proper technique to a CrossFit class at the Wyvern Fitness Center on Aviano Air Base, Italy, Feb. 26, 2020. Cooke helps Rene Drake operate CrossFit Aviano, the base’s free CrossFit program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy --

It’s 5:30 a.m. at the Wyvern Fitness Center on Aviano Air Base, Italy, and a group of weary-eyed CrossFit athletes shuffles in. As the group gathers around CrossFit Aviano’s makeshift home- two whiteboards stacked on a squat rack in the back of the gym- they’re greeted by a voice with way too much energy for this early in the morning.

“Allllright! Here’s what we’re going to do this morning.”

The voice belongs to Senior Airman Eric Cooke, a Weapons Director at the 606th Air Control Squadron. Cooke is also a volunteer CrossFit coach, and brings a healthy passion for CrossFit to the gym with him.

“In 2014 I was doing triathlons and one of my training partners asked me to try out their gym, and it happened to be a CrossFit gym. I was hooked after my first workout and started going 5-6 days a week after that,” Cooke said. Soon, he began coaching. For the past 2 years, he’s greeted sleepy athletes at the 5:30 a.m. class with his trademark energy.

“I enjoy my morning class,” Cooke said. “It can be tough getting up at 4:30, but knowing people are coming to put in work makes it all worth it.”

The sport of CrossFit was founded out of a Santa Cruz, California, garage in 2000. It quickly rose in popularity thanks to a blend of gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, and metabolic conditioning that proponents say can optimize fitness in a way that other forms of exercise can’t. It requires discipline, focus, and a slew of other traits Cooke says bleed over into his job as a Weapons Director. Weapons Directors talk to pilots from the ground while they’re flying missions, and are charged with relaying key information to put pilots in the best possible position to succeed.

“Attention to detail is key to making sure my students are performing movements safely and efficiently,” Cooke said. “It also applies to being a Weapons Director because the pilots are counting on us to keep them safe as they fly.”

As the morning’s CrossFit class gets underway, Cooke demonstrates how to safely perform the movements required for the workout of the day. He picks up a barbell from the ground, and hoists it up to his shoulders with ease. The key to a solid hang clean, he says, is keeping the barbell as close to your body as possible during the movement.

“Safety in class is the most important thing to me. I want to ensure that my athletes perform movements properly and improve each time,” Cooke said.

Watching him coach, it’s obvious Cooke is a natural athlete. His movements are long and exaggerated for the benefit of his students, but he moves with the precision of repetition. It’s the type of body control built from years of experience.

“I grew up on Cocolalla Lake in Idaho. I spent most of my time outside hiking, building forts, and swimming in the lake.  I was also lucky enough to be able to hunt and ride dirt bikes. Once I got into middle school I started playing football,” Cooke said.

It’s not just Cooke’s athleticism that stands out during class, however. As he moves from student to student during the workout, he makes small corrections to their form and offers enthusiastic motivation. The cadence of his voice and the confidence in his instruction offer a glimpse into his life before the military.

“After teaching high school for 7 years I was ready for a change and decided to join the Air Force,” Cooke said. “My grandpa retired from the Air Force and I knew that I always wanted to serve in the military.”

The combination of these two things-- natural athleticism and experience in teaching-- combine to make him a wholly effective CrossFit coach. It shows at the end of class as his students lay in puddles of their own sweat, gasping for air.

 “At the end of a class I want every athlete to feel like they got an amazing workout as well as improved on the skills and movements that were worked on in class,” Cooke said. “There are many different ways to quantify a successful day: An athlete getting a personal record, improving on a skill, getting more fit, or getting a new movement for the first time.”

In the future, Cooke plans to continue coaching CrossFit and maybe even open his own gym someday. But for now, he’s focused on bringing that early-morning energy to as many athletes as possible.

“The Coaches at CrossFit Aviano are dedicated to helping our members to become the best versions of themselves and getting fit. Drop in to a class and give it a try,” Cooke said.

Classes are each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5:30 and 9:30 a.m.