LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Emily Cook's aerial skiing career came full circle Saturday as she stood atop a hill and looked down to the place where her Olympic aspirations crashed in a heap four years ago.
The wind gusted and the snow swirled, just as they did four years ago before Cook's horrific accident that left doubts about whether she'd ever walk normally again. But the aerial skier with the pigtails and winning smile pushed off, rocketed into the air and completed a series of twists and somersaults before landing on her own two feet.
The performance wasn't textbook. It was good for 15th place. But it didn't have to be perfect.
"It was about beating the demons thing," Cook, 26, said afterward. "I do, in fact, have some bad memories on this hill. It was about pushing through those and pushing back the demons."
Cook, her roommate Ryan St. Onge, Jeremy Bloom and Hannah Kearney made the team based on the Olympic trials last month in Steamboat Springs, Colo. The remainder of the 14-member squad of aerial and mogul skiers will be named Wednesday.
Four years ago as now, Cook was already assured of a trip to the Winter Games. The competition in Lake Placid was just one of the final checkmarks on her Olympic to-do list.
"I was right where I wanted to be," she recalled of that day.
Cook, a former gymnast from Belmont, Mass., lined up at the top of the hill for a training run and waited for the wind to die. She pushed off just as a gust struck her full on. Her coaches and even rival coaches yelled for her to "pull, pull" her body into a tight ball to gain speed.
Instead, like an underpowered airplane, she stalled just after takeoff and plummeted to the ice pack just under the lip of the launch platform. Her ankles and feet exploded in her boots.
Cook slid down the hill and lay motionless on the snow, as emergency workers skied and ran to her side. The damage was enormous: a shattered and dislocated left foot, a broken bone in her right foot and ligaments in both feet in tatters.
"I went into shock pretty quickly. ... I don't remember all of the details of it," she said.
Her place on the team went to Jeret "Speedy" Peterson. Cook went to the Salt Lake Olympics, but only as a spectator.
Then it was "one step at a time, one surgery at a time, one rehabilitation at a time," she said.
There were setbacks. Eighteen months after the accident, doctors fused the bones in her left foot in a last-ditch effort to get her back to competition.
"Every time I'd be in therapy, crying because of the pain or because that day just seemed far too hard to deal with, I would picture myself there," she said of the 2006 Olympics. "At that moment, it became important enough to push through the pain."
Finally, things began improving.
"Emily deserves the gold medal in patience," said Paul Robbins, the dean of skiing writers. "Her family, teammates and sponsors believed in her, and that, along with her own incredible will, brought her back to competition."
Cook kept her hand in the game by coaching and monitoring daily training while she rehabilitated her ankles and feet.
"We keep talking about this comeback thing, but honestly, I never went that far away," she said. "I didn't think it would take three years to get back to competition. But it was worth it. I've had more fun this year than I had, ever. Being away so long allowed me to appreciate having it back in my life and be able to soak up every moment and love it."
She began jumping into a pool in June 2004 and rejoined the World Cup circuit in 2005, finishing seventh overall.
"Emily is one of the most positive people I know," said Peterson, 24. "She's kind of like the mother hen of our team. She keeps us all in line."
Before this season started, Cook and her teammates spent a week at Navy SEAL training camp near San Diego. They climbed 50 feet up a cargo net without safety harnesses or air bags below. They hauled and paddled military rafts for hours to build stamina and went skydiving. And there were endless long-distance runs.
Near the end of one grueling run, halfway up a hill, Cook collapsed. Peterson bent down, picked her up and carried her across the finish line.
"I believe it was the catalyst for the amazing team dynamic we have now," Cook said. "We've never been a stronger team. For us in an individual sport to have such an amazing team dynamic, it elevates the level of competition."
The camp brought the athletes face to face with their weaknesses and fears.
"Finding those things that we are actually afraid of and doing them anyway really has helped us overcome our fears on the hill as well," Cook said. "Especially for me coming back here to Lake Placid, there were some fears. Honestly, that was the only reason I was out there was to put those fears behind me and move on to Torino."
Four years ago, Cook had to be wheeled into the opening ceremony. She cried and laughed as her teammates marched into Rice-Eccles Stadium behind the American flag.
This time, she'll walk in, surrounded by the athletes who stood by her when she couldn't stand herself.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world, even if my competition were the next day," she said, her eyes glistening. "When I won the Olympic trial this year, Speedy came over to me and gave me a huge hug and said, `I can't wait to walk in with you,' and I just started crying. It was the first moment I started crying out there. I would be very surprised if I don't start crying again at opening ceremonies."