When you think of the quintessential Olympic athlete, Emily Cook comes to mind. It could be her dedication to task. Perhaps it's her ambassador-like smile. Or maybe it's her mentoring of youth. For over a decade, Emily has been the face of freestyle aerials skiing.
In a career that saw her win three World Cups, six U.S. titles and compete in three Olympics, it was never about her. It was always about the impact she had on others.
Saturday had all the trappings of a tough day for Emily. It was hard to come to grips that she had made her final competitive jump in Sochi. But it was time. Passing the baton is never easy.
The USANA U.S. Freestyle Championships aerials comp was a coming-out party for the next generation of stars. Cook wasn't on the start list. Time to step aside and let the new kids step forward.
She knew hanging in the finish area would bring tears. So she picked up a shovel on the knoll and helped chop the landing. Then she grabbed a radio to take up to the top for athletes to get course reports trying to stay busy. As always, giving of herself to help others.
Aerialists do crazy things. It's a different breed of cat who can vault themselves 60 feet in the air twisting and spinning. But it's in their blood.
If you want to find peace and calm on an aerials hill, head to the top. There's a certain sense of peace and calm amidst the nervousness. You're removed from the chatter of the knoll. You can't see the finish crowds.
Sure, at times her mind wandered to that feeling she had on top of a rickety scaffold in downtown Moscow six years ago when she won her first World Cup. Or that night at Torino in 2006 when she walked into the stadium finally an 'official' Olympian. There were the heartaches, too the pain when she shattered both feet on the eve of the 2002 Games, and the emptiness she and teammates felt when they lost their beloved friend Speedy.
For the first time in her 16-year U.S. Ski Team career, Emily wasn't sure where she would be next year. With support from the team, she had a college degree. As a longtime spokesperson for international brands like Visa, speaking engagements with Chase, John Hancock, Chevron and more, she had amassed a Rolodex of the who's who in global marketing.
She had served as a journalist with Ski Racing and even called the Sochi men's aerials for Olympic Broadcasting Services. She had traveled the world helping kids with Right to Play and Kids Play International. "The best thing about being an athlete was the platform it gave me to make a difference in the world," she said.
For once she wasn't thinking about long hours in the gym coming up. Now it was the business meetings she had set in New York, Atlanta and San Francisco to plot out the next steps in finding her own post athlete career.
But all that was secondary right now. Today it was about focusing on her young teammates keeping them calm, maintaining their focus, bringing out their confidence.
This was where she belonged on that day!
When it was all over, she skied down and faced her fans -- a huge smile on her face. She was beaming with pride for helping the rising teenaged stars of the Elite Aerial Development Program -- first podiums for Zac Surdell and Si Ning Chan!
There wasn't a medal waiting for Emily Cook that day. But what she took away was even more valuable.
"Hey, Emily," yelled 17-year-old Si Ning Chan, one of the EADP's stars of tomorrow who took silver. "Thanks for being our top coach today."
For Emily Cook, an accomplished star of her sport, that acknowledgement alone was her gold medal. She had made a difference for someone.
One of the most experienced communications professionals in skiing, Tom Kelly is a veteran of eight Olympics and serves as vice president, Communications, for the Park City-based U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. A Wisconsin native, he and his wife Carole Duh have lived in Park City since 1988 when he's not traveling the world with the team.