The Fast Track at Rio Mesa : Travis Cooksey Yearns for Applause Onstage and at the Tape

Times Staff Writer

People have waited in line and paid money to see Travis Cooksey, which does not unnerve him at all.

He'd like you to watch him run.

He'd like you to watch him act.

He'd like you to watch him perform a pantomime.

Whether it be Travis Cooksey on a track or Travis Cooksey on a stage, the billing is the same--Travis Cooksey: performer.

So it should surprise no one that the Rio Mesa High senior isn't shy. A certain good-natured impishness saves Cooksey from being called "conceited," that distasteful label self-confident teen-agers must endure.

But shy? Not at all.

"Loud clapping, what a neat feeling that is," he said. "When I'm done with a stage performance and people say, 'Good job,' it's the same as after a race when I'm walking through the crowd and I hear people say, 'Great race.' "

Great race was something Cooksey heard frequently last year. His time of 1:52.05 in the 800-meter run won the Southern Section 4-A Division championship. It is also the fastest time ever in Ventura County and is the fastest time of any returning high school runner in the state.

Cooksey (6-0, 158) and teammate Gary Aanerud, who has run a 1:55.5 in the 800, will compete in the open 880-yard run in the Sunkist Invitational at the Sports Arena on Friday. Cooksey is favored to win the event, although another of the nation's fastest runners, Tony Hernandez of Brown High in Phoenix, Ariz., also is an entrant.

"Travis will have his hands full but competition usually brings out the best in him," Rio Mesa Coach Brian FitzGerald said.

Certainly, the large crowd won't bother him. Cooksey, following in the footsteps of his older brothers--Perry, Gary and James--has performed mime and has acted in productions with the Moorpark Melodrama.

"The energy of the crowd is the same," he said. "In a race, there is total silence at the gun, then the noise starts growing. It's an incredible feeling."

He feels more pressure when running than acting, however.

"When I'm onstage I can't see the people in the audience because of the lights," he said. "If I goof up, they don't know it. They think it's part of the script.

"On a track, I can see the audience. And if I goof up, they know I goofed up."

Everybody knows he goofed up during last year's state meet. Leading the 800 with about 70 meters to go, Cooksey was overcome by--of all things--stage fright.

"I came around the last turn in the lead and kind of got scared," he said. "I thought, 'This can't be happening to me. It's too good to be true.' Then I could feel myself slowing."

Cooksey finished sixth. His time of 1:54.3 was no embarrassment, but it left some unfinished business. Had he won the state title, there would be little to accomplish this season. As it is . . .

"I want it. I haven't acquired the state championship yet and that thought makes me work hard," he said.

An additional goal is to qualify for the 1988 Olympic trials by running an 800-meter time of 1:47.89. FitzGerald believes Cooksey can qualify but would like him to alter his strategy of taking an early lead and setting the pace for other runners.

"He's a front-runner, which works against him in the big races," FitzGerald said. "I'd like to work on tactical strategy with him this year."

Convincing Cooksey might be a problem.

"I'm going to continue with it. Last year, my dad told me to 'Take off and lead your own race,' " he said. "This year I want to take that style and polish it like a diamond."

Cooksey and his coach also disagree on the length of race that will best benefit the runner in college. FitzGerald wants him to try running the mile in a few dual meets this season.

"He'll never run both in a meet, but I'd like him to alternate events," FitzGerald said. "Because he is a big, strong guy, he might be best-suited for the 1,500 in college."

While college is definitely in Cooksey's plans--he's narrowed the field to Humboldt, Fresno State and USC--the 1,500 is not.

"This has come up quite a few times and I'd rather stick with the 800," he said.

The differences of opinion don't perturb FitzGerald, who would rather marvel at Cooksey's strong will. "He's a self-sufficient kid who does real well for himself," he said.

Never was Cooksey's strong will needed more than in December of his sophomore year, when he crossed paths with fate in the form of fists.

While driving to a school dance, a hubcap fell off his car and rolled onto a nearby lawn. When he stopped to fetch it, a man came out of the house. A large man. A large, angry man.

"He was yelling that I shot his dog and that I'd been racing down his street for weeks," Cooksey said. "I'd never seen the guy before."

Cooksey did what he does best--he ran. But then he thought, "I can't leave my mom's car back there," so he went back. A fight ensued and Cooksey suffered a dislocated jaw, a broken nose, a concussion and nerve damage to his neck.

His sophomore season was spent recovering from the injuries. Recovering from blowing the state meet last year was mild in comparison.

Now comes Cooksey's last chance in high school for a curtain call. If he fulfills his promise, a rousing round of applause awaits him.

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