CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine -- When she landed her aerial leap last week in a World Cup freestyle skiing event in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, there were tears of joy from and for Emily Cook, who grew up in Belmont, Mass., and graduated from Carrabassett Valley Academy.
It wasn't that the leap propelled her to a podium finish -- she placed eighth -- or even that the jump was particularly outstanding. But after 2 1/2 years away from competition because of an accident, and months of uncertainty whether she ever would compete again, Cook, 25, was back on skis and in the air.
"It was a pretty emotional thing for me," said Cook in a phone interview Monday as she waited in Chicago for a plane to British Columbia for her second Cup event since her return. "Everyone was emotional. There were definitely a lot of tears flowing."
Cook remembers the accident vividly, though at the time she did not know how badly hurt she was. As reigning US champion aerialist in 2001 and eyeing the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, she was training in Lake Placid, N.Y. just two weeks after winning the Gold Cup, which qualified her for the Olympic team, when the horrific crash happened.
With a hard wind swirling snow on The Knoll, Cook soared up to her usual height of 30 feet above the landing slope, performed her spins and flips, then dropped well short of her target on flat ground. Both feet were damaged in the accident, one with crushed bones, the other with serious ligament damage. She was 22 with an excellent chance of winning an Olympic medal, but suddenly doctors were doubting if she ever would soar again.
"I don't remember exactly what I felt [about the possibility her career was over], but I knew I had to try as hard as I could to come back," Cook said.
An old friend, Jeret Peterson, took Cook's place on the Olympic team and brought a tear to her eye when, on national television before his jump, he held up his gloves, on which he had written "Hi Emily." Peterson, called "Speedy" by the coaches, finished in ninth place in his first Olympics and since has made three World Cup podiums.
It was help from friends such as Peterson, said Cook, that helped her along the tough road back. With several surgeries over the next 29 months, constant rehabilitation was the only way back.
"Speedy continues to be a really good friend and has always been a huge support," said Cook. "He's here with me now, and I hope he's with me to walk into Opening Ceremonies [at the 2006 Olympics in Italy]."
Growing up in Belmont, Cook left the high school in winter to train and compete at Carrabassett Valley Academy, which had one of the strongest freestyle programs in the country. As a child she had been a gymnast, so serious at one point that she trained with Olympic coach Carlo Rossi.
But she also loved skiing, and the marriage of the sports was aerial jumping. "Once I tried it, I just fell in love with the sport," she said. "It was just the right place for me to be."
In the first years, she progressed fast and without setback. In 1999, at 19, she was 18th in her first World Championship competition in Switzerland, and she was 13th two years later in British Columbia. In 2001 she achieved her first podium -- third place in Deer Valley, Utah -- and was ranked the No. 1 female aerialist in the US.
So the crash that ended the smooth ascent of her career also threw Cook her most serious challenge. About 18 months ago, just as she thought her feet had healed and she might be ready to begin training, she suffered another setback, needing more surgery.
"It was really a pretty emotional time," she said. "I knew I'd come back someday, but it seemed like such a long, crazy road for me. I was up and down, and I'll admit it -- some days I had my doubts."
Cook credits her doctor, Tim Beals from the University of Utah medical staff, for taking a personal interest in helping her resume her jumping career, and last summer came the word she had been waiting to hear from him. After 2 1/2 years, she was cleared to begin jumping again.
"After doing a bone scan, Dr. Beals sat me down and said, `What would you say if I said you can pretty much do whatever you want?' I said I want to jump when the team meets Friday morning at 8 a.m.," Cook said.
It was June 11 when all 18 team members gathered at the training pool at Utah's Olympic Training Park. Cook began her usual warmup drills and then took her perch atop the plastic in-run ramp leading to the pool.
"I had done so much training on the trampoline, I knew I was well prepared," she said. "But I was nervous, and I told myself I had been preparing for this for two years."
The jump was a relatively small one, but when the 5-foot-3-inch, 120-pounder launched herself into the air, then plunged into the pool, resurfacing with a flash of her customary 1,000-watt smile, teammates and onlookers erupted with cheers. As a focal point, Cook created much team solidarity, according to her coaches.
That effect was deepened when, for preseason training last fall, the team worked out at an intense camp with the Navy Seals in San Diego. To a person, the skiers remember almost nothing but the pain of their immense undertaking.
"It really [expletive]," said Peterson, "but we were all having a bad time together, so we could motivate each other. I think we learned as a team that a person can push his body a lot further than what your emotion or mind thinks you can. That's what we got out of training camp."
So the emotion was flowing again last week at Mont Tremblant when Cook, after the years of restoration and preparation, and just a year away from the Olympic Games -- for which she still has to qualify -- achieved her goal of landing a top-10 jump in her first World Cup competition.
"There were lots of tears," she said. "It was scary and exciting, but it gives me a huge sense of accomplishment. Just huge. My goals now are to get a top 5, then a podium, and then increase the difficulty of the jumps so next season I can qualify for the Olympic team."
But for now, it's sweet, she said, just to soar again and watch the world spin below her, 30 feet down.