KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Elite aerialist Emily Cook has devoted more than half her life to perfecting split-second maneuvers in a vortex of noise and light, so it's probably no shock that she gravitated to fly fishing as a contemplative break from routine.
Her favorite fish story has everything to do with the company and nothing to do with a trophy. It was the last time she and her father and grandfather went out together, on the Green River that wends through Wyoming and Utah.
Friday, the big one eluded Cook once more as she competed in her third and what she said will be her final Winter Games. She made it to the second of three finals under a merciless new format that winnowed the field from 12 to eight to four, starting with a blank slate every round."For me, it's not necessarily always about the fishing," Cook, 34, told a small group of reporters last fall. "It's about the people that I'm going with and the time I'm spending on the river in a beautiful setting. So to be out there with my grandfather, who taught my dad, and my dad, who taught me ... it was definitely a great time, and we caught some huge fish, too."
After bouncing off her hip in an off-balance landing of a full-double full jump, Cook waited for her score, let out a long breath, picked up her skis and walked away.
"I'm 100 percent confident I left no stone unturned," Cook told reporters as fellow veteran Alla Tsuper of Belarus clinched the gold medal. Moments later, Cook wrapped comforting arms around 20-year-old teammate Ashley Caldwell, who was in tears after notching the best score of the day in qualifying with a huge triple-flip triple-twist jump, only to be knocked out of the first final.
It was a glimpse of the leadership role Cook has long played on the U.S. freestyle team and with the larger group of winter athletes based in Park City, Utah. Caldwell, a two-time Olympian who finished 10th on Friday, said she had a hard time imagining the women's aerials program without its cornerstone.
"She's all about the right things and not about results," said Lindsey Van, the ski jumping trailblazer who met Cook when she was 12.
That is the product of a life that taught Cook to distinguish between competitive loss and true bereavement. Cook's mother was killed by a drunk driver when she was 2 years old. One of her dearest friends, Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, took his own life in July 2011, not much more than a year after he won the aerials silver medal at the Vancouver Games.
But perspective never blunted Cook's natural ebullience or her thirst for excellence. She stayed in the mix with the best acrobats in her sport well into her 30s. She has won three World Cup events since 2008 and was second overall in the aerials standings on the circuit last season. Her eighth-place finish in Sochi was her best in an Olympics.
This sport pummels its athletes -- Caldwell underwent surgeries to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in both knees within a year's time -- and Cook recognizes it's time to bow to gravity. The wreckage left by a 2002 crash that broke both her feet took more than two years to overcome. Bruised heels in the lead-up to Vancouver robbed her of her best form. She is always rehabbing something.
Last October, Cook matter-of-factly rattled off her dings, downplaying each one: lingering pain from an old disk injury, pain in her feet she described as "not dramatic," partially torn ligaments in one shoulder. "That will be fixed in the spring," she said firmly, as if it were a squeaky fan belt.
Cook said Friday that she might keep going if she thought her body could withstand it, but will be content to view the Olympics from another vantage point next time around. "I don't know where I'll be," she said, gesturing around the base of the hill where coaches, reporters and spectators stood in different pens, but said she'll remain connected to the sport.
Off the hill, she has already found long-term purpose in her involvement with the Speedy Foundation, established by Peterson's family and friends after his death to tackle mental health issues and suicide prevention. Cook has been one of the most visible faces of the organization, which was instrumental in starting the first suicide hotline in Peterson's home state of Idaho.
In an email, Linda Peterson, Jeret's mother, called the petite Cook "a gentle and giant spirit ... the most gracious and empowering person I know."
Friday, as she has on thousands of occasions, Cook raised both hands in the air to prepare to soar off the concave kicker and into space. The pose is one most athletes strike at the finish line. It might as well have been a celebration every time she sailed upward because of all the satisfaction she reeled in.