Ready to soar amid heartache

Courtesy of Emily Cook

Team camaraderie is one of the things Emily Cook values most about the Olympic experience.

The 2014 Olympics are finally, finally here! We arrived in Munich early Wednesday morning, and started our day with U.S. team processing, which includes a whirlwind of trying on and altering our new Olympic clothing, ordering Olympic rings and taking team photos. Afterward, we hit the gym for a quick recovery workout before dinner and an early bedtime. Throughout the day we greeted old friends, met new teammates and shared stories of our Olympic journeys -- a perfectly inspiring introduction to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

As Olympians’ stories are told throughout the month, the world will learn about the obstacles each athlete has overcome and the lifetime of training it has taken to get to this point. Most of these stories will also highlight the support behind each athlete and the unique thread of family, friends, coaches, teammates and sponsors that made it possible for us to get here. To me, this is the best part of the Olympic Games: being able to share the journey and acknowledge those who helped me reach my dreams.

When the Olympic team was named two weeks ago, there was a stark difference with teams of the past. Not only was our aerials team much smaller than usual, but there was a staple to my personal experience noticeably missing. I qualified for my first Olympic Games in 2002, shattering both of my feet just two weeks later. When I learned that I would not be able to compete, my spot was filled by one of my best friends, Jeret “Speedy” Peterson.

I have shared each of my Olympic experiences until now with Speedy. He truly taught me what it was to be a teammate and a friend, from our early days of laughter-filled training when we were barely teenagers. Speedy was always there. In 2002, he flashed the TV cameras with “Hi Emily” gloves, and after a trying three-year recovery from my injury, I walked with him into the opening ceremony of the 2006 Torino games, tears streaming down my face.

Four years later, I watched as he took home a silver medal in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. We shared so many Olympic experiences together that heading into this Games without him is poignantly different. After suffering for the majority of his life with depression, Speedy took his own life in the summer of 2011. What he left behind were devastated friends and family, but also as time moved on, a legacy.

After his death, his family and friends developed the Speedy Foundation to help those who suffer as he did and to continue a conversation on mental health that was so important to him. But to me, the legacy spans far further than that. Speedy taught all of us to take care of each other.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Emily Cook is back for her third Olympics in Sochi.

Last week, the three aerialists named to the Olympic team (myself, Mac Bohonnon and Ashley Caldwell) jumped at Deer Valley in Utah, working to fine-tune our tricks before heading to Sochi. When the weather got challenging and the site needed more work, the rest of our team came to help us prepare the hill, chopping up the landing, slipping snow off the inrun and shoveling and raking the outrun.

These athletes spent hours making sure that the hill was safe for the three of us, before heading to our other Park City site to train to be the future Olympic teams in 2018 and beyond. There is no way we would have had as successful a prep camp without the work of our entire team, and I very much look forward to helping each of them toward their own Olympic goals after Sochi. This sort of attitude is what Speedy left behind and is one of the things that makes me proud to be a part of the Olympic movement.

On our last day of camp in Deer Valley, as we were getting ready for jumping, a young boy asked if he could take a picture with our Olympic team. When I offered him my new Olympic jacket to wear for the picture, his eyes lit up and I could practically see the dreams spinning in his mind. We took the picture and I mentioned that maybe one day he would have his own Olympic uniform, to which he smiled and replied, “I hope so.”

This conversation is so similar to one I remember having myself as a 12-year-old, with stars in my eyes. That conversation helped me learn that with hard work and perseverance, I too could be an Olympian. Whether this young boy dreams to be an athlete, a doctor, a teacher, a musician, a writer or has any other aspiration, I can only hope that seeing others fulfill their dreams will be the catalyst for him to realize his own. That is the spirit of the Olympics: coming together to reach for common goals and celebrating the human spirit.

Embroidered into the pockets and on the inside of our new Olympic gear are phrases such as “This is your moment.” I could not possibly be more honored to be on this journey, and to represent our team in Russia. I am so excited for the weeks to come and after four years of leaving no stone left unturned, I know I am prepared to represent Team USA. I can’t wait to create new memories and to share those experiences with the world.