- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The terrifying sound was so loud her teammates heard it. Snap, crackle, pop went most of the bones in Emily Cook’s left foot. The ankle was dislocated and most of the ligaments torn. The right foot was damaged, too. Cook went into shock but remained conscious, then passed out after her boot came off.

It happened in 2002, about a month before the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Cook had made the U.S. aerial freestyle team. Those skiers whoosh down a hill and take off from a ski jump. Once airborne, they perform all kinds of twists and flips and other crazy stuff.

“I was right where I wanted to be,” she said.

And then, in a flash, she wasn’t. During the middle of a routine practice run on a snowy, windy day in Lake Placid, N.Y., a gust caught Cook just after takeoff. Big trouble and she knew it.

“But I was trained to commit to the jump,” she said.

Blown off course, she landed horribly wrong in a place she wasn’t supposed to land. She said it was like falling out of a 30-foot high window onto cement.

Cook watched the Games from a wheelchair, her sole means of transportation for two months, with pins holding her foot together.

“It was a very, very eye-opening experience for me,” she said. “Sitting in the stands and watching the aerial events from a wheelchair was definitely not the way I wanted to go.”

Aerial skiers are a fraternal, collegial lot, bonded by danger and an X-Games, rebel image. It wasn’t an Olympic sport until 1994 (the mogul form of freestyle skiing went Olympic in 1992). So when Cook went down, everybody felt it. Teammates rallied around her. Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, who replaced Cook on the team, made regular visits during the Games and painted “Hi Emily” on his gloves for the TV audience.

“Emily is very determined,” he said. “She kind of shows me that a bruised back or a sore foot really isn’t that sore or bruised anymore.”

Many doubted whether she could come back. Not Cook.

“Watching the Games made me want it even more,” she said. “I was actually told I might never walk normal again, I might never ski again and more than likely never be an aerialist again.”

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Following two major surgeries to rebuild her foot and ankle, a grueling 21/2 year rehabilitation that included yoga, Pilates, strength training and two stints with the Navy SEALs, Cook indeed has made it all the way back at age 26. On the road to Turin and the 2006 Winter Olympics, she posted her fourth straight top-10 finish Sunday, placing seventh in a World Cup event in China to lead all U.S. aerialists.

Cook said it took a lot of “small steps” to reach this point. She started practicing water landings before trying snow. Her first time back on the slopes, about a year ago, was scary. Fear is part of the sport, she said, but this was a new level.

“But I trusted my training,” she said. “I trusted that I was prepared.” She kept telling herself, “I’m fine, right?”

Right. She did it, and the crowd went wild. Said teammate Joe Pack: “It was a pretty memorable moment.”

But the year before, after her foot was rebuilt, Cook was not so fine when a doctor said he didn’t like how the bones had healed. Some had degenerated. It takes a lot to cloud her eternal sunshine, but that did it.

“My darkest day,” she said. The only option was more surgery, a bone fusion in the arch.

“They put in a lot of hardware,” she said. “But they couldn’t guarantee anything.”

Cook took care of the rest. She worked with a sports psychologist and trained hard, joining her teammates for some rough work in San Diego with the elite, highly trained Navy SEALs. She did it in 2004 and again this year, an intense, demanding regimen designed to weed out the weak. On an obstacle course, she had to scale a 50-foot cargo net. She had to carry a boat over her head and venture into “gigantic surf,” she said. During a run, she suffered a stress fracture in her foot.

“Emily was bawling, but she still had a smile on her face,” said Peterson, who helped carry her to the finish.

Said Cook: “It was absolutely outstanding,” meaning the experience and not the pain. “They showed us what hard work is. They pushed us to our limits.”

Cook, who is from Belmont, Mass., a Boston suburb, learned to adjust at an early age. When she was 2, her mother’s car was struck by a drunken driver, and her mother remained in a coma for two years before she died. Cook cannot remember her mom, but she admits to having a hard time as a child coming to grips with what happened. But a strong support system — her father, aunt and other relatives, plenty of friends — helped guide her through.

“I consider myself rather lucky to have such an amazing family, an extended family,” she said.

That family is thrilled and inspired that Cook is on the slopes again.

“Not having her there, you could tell something was missing,” Pack said. “And when she came back, whatever was missing was back.”

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