The reason I'm smiling so much, is that I know the last four years, eight years, 12 years, there's been no stone left unturned. That's the way to leave happy. —Emily Cook
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Emily Cook's first Olympics ended with her watching the women's aerials final from a wheelchair.
Her last ended with a wave goodbye and the knowledge she has nothing left to give and — even better — nothing left to prove.
The 34-year-old finished eighth on Friday night at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park when she couldn't quite land her jump during the second elimination round in the finals.
She smiled when her score of 64.50 flashed, as if 12 years of weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
Maybe that's because it had.
"I'm so happy," she said. "It's been such a long road, so many ups and downs. This sport is so fun. Yes, this will be my last Olympics but I'm not going anywhere. I'll be supporting these guys for a long time."
Cook figures it's the least she can do after spending nearly two decades carving out a career as one of the most consistent aerialists on the planet. Surviving that long in a sport that requires athletes to fling themselves down a ramp at 35 mph then complete a series of ever more difficult twists and jumps 50 feet in the air is not for the faint of heart.
Yet Cook somehow did it despite missing two years after dislocating bones in her left foot in January, 2002, just weeks before the games in Salt Lake City. She had already been named to the Olympic team at that point and gamely wheeled out to the stands to watch the competition go on without her.
Even as doctors told Cook she may not walk again, she pressed on. Cook rebounded to make the Olympic team in 2006 and 2010, though the steady performances that allowed her to ski for a living abandoned her on the biggest stage. She didn't make it out of qualifying either time.
Still, the girl who started skiing at age 4 while growing up in Belmont, Mass., kept going, even though her spot atop the U.S. team had been pushed in recent years by newcomer Ashley Caldwell.
When the addition of a handful of new freestyle disciplines forced U.S. coaches to start doing some creative math to figure who to bring to Sochi, it appeared Cook's goal of one last flight under the rings was in jeopardy.
She was a last-minute addition and vowed to prove she wasn't a wasted pick. On a balmy Russian night in front of a small batch of supporters, Cook went out her way. She cruised to the finals with a difficult triple-twisting double flip then made it out of the first elimination round with a slightly easier jump.
Knowing she had to be perfect to reach the four-skier final, she wasn't. Cook sat down onto the snow while landing and knew instantly it was over.
There were no tears, however. Only smiles. She had validated the decision to put her on the team and left every last ounce of effort on the slushy hill. She's done, and that's just fine.
"The reason I'm smiling so much, is that I know the last four years, eight years, 12 years, there's been no stone left unturned," she said. "That's the way to leave happy."