Coming back from a crash

Emily Cook (left) and teammates Allie Lee and Dylan Ferguson on the Great Wall of China. Says Cook, "Aerialists like to be upside-down!" Courtesy Emily Cook

One of my goals as an athlete is to go into each competition feeling prepared and confident. I love planning, so setting strategies to reach my goals makes me feel in control.

I have always considered this to be one of my strengths, but I was reminded early this season that sometimes success requires a serious deviation from the drawing board.

My plan was to use our team’s early season prep period in Park City to practice the fundamentals and my more challenging tricks on our home hill at the Utah Olympic Park. Unfortunately, a crashed jump in early December left me with a minor concussion. The team takes head injuries very seriously and our medical staff devised a conservative protocol that involved a series of testing and progressive activity and would ideally get me back to jumping for our first World Cup of the season in China on January 5.

With some unanticipated time on my hands, I focused the majority of my energy on resting my body, finishing my last class at the University of Utah and refining my mental game for the upcoming World Cup season. I spent time visualizing the jumps I was unable to do and meeting with our team’s sport psychologist, Dr. Nicole Detling. Together, we worked to prepare for the upcoming event in China and recognize the fact that the unexpected should often, in fact, be expected. As I looked back at years of competition, I noticed many of my most important events included some sort of surprise -- broken equipment, bad weather or injury -- and, more important, many of these surprises preceded my best results.

After a refreshing trip home to Boston for the holidays, and receiving that much-anticipated diploma in the mail from the University of Utah, I was thankful to feel symptom-free and ready to rejoin the team. A few days after Christmas we embarked on the long trip to China -- and arrived to jet lag, unfamiliar food and minus-30-degree weather. We bundled up and started the World Cup season.

Aerialists crash; it’s a part of our sport, but it can still be a bit unnerving, not to mention painful. After a month off from training and with a new jump site and some windy weather, I was definitely rusty. I took a few crashes in training in China, and went into the competition sore, tired and without completing my most difficult tricks.

But I did have mental preparation and 15 years of experience on the World Cup tour. On competition day, I took a few long, deep breaths, centered myself and found confidence in what I had done in years past. After qualifying for a second jump, I increased my degree of difficulty and performed a well-executed triple-twisting double flip (called a full double full), just barely missing the final round to fight for a spot on the podium. I finished the day very satisfied, in fifth place.

The morning after the competition, our team flew to Beijing, got in a workout and took in the beauty of the Great Wall before heading home for some much-needed laundry and one night of sleep in our own beds. We then went on a January World Cup whirlwind: We competed in Val St. Come, Quebec, Lake Placid, N.Y., and at home in Deer Valley, Utah.

My favorite moment came in Lake Placid, where I earned my first podium spot of the season with a third-place finish. I was ecstatic and felt proud to have overcome the reduced training time that comes from a month of nonstop competition.

Now, with the 2014 Olympics just one year away, I am so thankful for each learning opportunity I've been given -- even the ones that stung a bit at the time. Throughout these past two months, I've had the opportunity to practice patience and calm in the face of adversity. I've also tested my ability to be flexible with changes and perform well even when things go awry.

I am definitely looking forward to having the opportunity to work on my plan and train some of my more difficult tricks, though! This week, the U.S. team will have training and three competitions at the Utah Olympic Park before heading to Sochi on Monday for our first look at next year’s Olympic venue.

Throughout the next year, as I work toward reaching my goal of bringing home Olympic gold, I will do my best to cherish each step of the process and use every moment as an opportunity to learn and grow.

It's one year until the Olympics, and I can’t wait!