Perhaps one of the most physically demanding sports at the Winter Olympics takes place off the ground. Freestyle Aerial Skiing requires extraordinary precision and balance at high speeds. Only a handful of athletes in the world can compete in the sport at the Olympic level. An American skier will try to maintain her balance at the upcoming Turin Olympics after breaking both of her feet.
Although the U.S. Olympic team lists this season as her ninth, Emily Cook spent almost four years coming back from a devastating injury, an injury many believed would end her career.
Three weeks before the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Cook landed hard during training at Lake Placid, New York. The 2001 U.S. Aerials champion tore ligaments in both feet while fracturing and dislocating bones in her left foot. It shattered her dream of competing in the Olympics.
"There were two major surgeries and just a small reduction in Lake Placid at the medical facility there. After each surgery, I was non-weight bearing on my left foot for three months. So a big problem that I had was a degeneration of the bone. You would relate it to osteoporosis. So coming back and starting to put weight on my leg, we had to be very careful with it so I would not cause any more fractures," she said.
That sort of experience might have ended Olympic dreams for other athletes. But Cook took her time to rehabilitate. "I really just did everything I could to stay positive and enjoy my life in the three years that I took off. And I learned a lot about myself during that time. I definitely really would not want to redo it that way. But it was quite an experience not being an athlete for three years after being an athlete from age six to 23. It is very interesting being a student and being a normal person again for a little while," she said.
Eventually, it was time for Cook to get back on her skis. And getting started was not easy. "I was really scared. I really was. It is occasionally a scary sport anyway. But everyone has been through coming back from an injury, been through going for their very first jump. And fear is a part of our sport. And I am not going to lie. I was scared. But I trusted my training. I trusted I was strong enough and I had prepared well enough to come back to the sport," she said.
Cook assured herself a berth in the Turin Games by winning the freestyle aerials U.S. Olympic Trials on December 30th. The 26-year-old Cook hopes not only to perform well in Italy after her long detour, but also to use her experience to help other athletes. "When you are coming back from an injury, there are a lot of small steps - coming back to (aerial) water (training) for the first time, coming back to snow for the first time, the first World Cup back. We have all done it. I hope now that I have been through it, I can help the other athletes who are coming back from injury as well," she said.
Since returning to the freestyle aerials World Cup circuit this season, Cook has turned in seven top-10 finishes. She also made her best personal performance at the 2005 World Championships with a seventh place finish. Cook is hoping her aerial talents will soar higher at the Turin Olympics.