When most people say their world is turned upside down, they mean something bad has occurred. When that happens to Emily Cook, though, the Olympic aerialist is right at home. Cook has spent most of her life inverted—deliberately—first as a gymnast and a diver, and ultimately on skis.
“I knew I would come back, compete again, and go to the Olympics. It was unfinished business for me.”
Cook first strapped on skis at age 4 and moved into freestyle at 14 while a student at Maine’s famed Carrabassett Valley Academy, a school and training center for winter sports athletes. She made the decision to leave gymnastics for competitive skiing the year before. “I realized that I loved skiing and that gymnasts peak really early,” she says, now 32. “If I had remained a gymnast, my career would already be over.” Instead, she is in training for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
At 14, however, like most new freestylers, Cook was a combined skier. Her first World Cup performance, in 1999, was as an acrobatic skier, before she decided to focus on aerials. “My background as a gymnast and diver was very helpful to me,” she says. “So was knowing how to ski. Many aerialists come in as acrobats—gymnasts or trampoliners—and have to learn how to ski.”
Cook describes her years at Carrabassett as critical for her mental, as well as physical, development. “It’s not an environment to be in if you don’t want to really do something great,” she says. “I learned how to be a great athlete from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep—the type of human being who knows how to set goals and reach them by really working hard. One of the best parts was the sports psychology section. That was the first time I had incorporated mental imagery into my training.”
A small business provides early support
Once she found her focus, Cook’s career as an aerialist literally took off. By 17, she was a member of the U.S. Ski Team and was living and training full time in Park City, Utah. That was where she met the owner of a small business—Black Diamond Gymnastics—who gave Cook some early support by hiring her to coach kids in gymnastics. “She was great,” says Cook. “She worked around my schedule to make sure I was training or studying or whatever I needed to do. It gave me a chance to earn some extra income and a ‘family’ in a new place.”
By 2001, Cook was the U.S. aerial champion and had stood on her first World Cup Podium." In 2002, she had three top-10 World Cup finishes and was the first female aerialist named to that year’s U.S. Olympic Team.
But 2002 was also when her own world turned upside down for real. Coming off a jump just two weeks before the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games were to open, Cook landed badly, breaking both feet. The extensive injuries kept her off skis for two years. But if her hopes for the Winter Olympics were gone, her spirit was not.
“It was all about commitment,” says Cook. “It was not a question of going back, but how long it would take. I knew I would come back, compete again, and go to the Olympics. It was unfinished business for me. The team at the rehab hospital was great, and the amount of support I had around me was terrific. They inspired me, and I made myself do it.”
The combination of inspiration and hard work brought Cook back in world-class competitive form. Her Olympic dream came true, and she competed in Torino in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010. She won back-to-back national titles in 2010 and 2011, and had her second career World Cup win last season.
Through it all, Cook has been supported by Visa, which has sponsored her since 1998.
A small business of her own
Knowing that even aerialists can’t compete forever, though, she has begun thinking about what comes next. She envisions a small business of her own—probably coaching or motivational speaking, or both. Then again, she enjoys non-profit work, and she’s also interested in health and wellness. Plus, she will soon graduate with a degree in communications and already writes a column for Ski Racing magazine. The world will have to wait and see.
Whatever she does, Cook sees the link between athletics and small business as a combination of commitment and attention to detail. “Being part of your community is also important,” she says. “If you have all that, you’ll get where you want to go.”