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The Olympics' toughest challenge? Deciding when it's time to walk away

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Click the image for more pictures of freestyle skiing aerialist Emily Cook. (USA TODAY Sports)

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — All she said was hi. She had flung herself 50 feet in the air, flipped twice, twisted twice, landed off-balance, pitched to the right, slammed onto the ground, shaken off the pain, rationalized the frustration, smiled for the TV cameras, obliged the rest of the media, given distraught teammates a shoulder on which to cry; and now, finally, after what seemed like forever, Emily Cook locked eyes with Don Cook, took five steps his way, and said nothing more than "Hi," because nothing more needed to be said.

Every Olympic Games, parents take center stage, and it's warranted. Kaitlyn Farrington's sold their cattle to let her pursue her dream, and Joss Christensen drew inspiration from his father's death, and Jamie Anderson's mom homeschooled her and seven others, and those are the stories we hear, because extracting every last bit of information about a gold-medal winner in niche sports often starts and ends with the parents. Please understand, then, this serves not to minimize any of the gilded parents but rather to make a point that the bond shared by Don and Emily Cook need not go unnoticed simply because she finished in eighth place in the Sochi Games' aerial competition Friday night.

[Photos: U.S. freestyle aerialist Emily Cook crashes out of the Olympics]

She said hi because what else does someone say when, after nearly 20 years of competing in one of the world's most dangerous sports — of crashing five stories tens of thousands of times, of compressing her poor back and tearing a shoulder labrum and blowing up her feet on the landings, of chaos incarnate — the end is nigh? She wanted, of course, to say that finally she'd done it, that after three Olympic competitions she'd finally medaled.

Most Olympic stories aren't fairy tales.

"Sometimes in this sport," Emily Cook said, "you just miss a little bit."

Emily Cook fell and finished in eighth place Friday. (USA TODAY Sports)

Never did Don Cook ask her to stop. Think about how much this took. She was his everything and his only thing. Emily's mother, Don's wife, Anita, was hit head-on by a drunk driver. She slipped into a coma from which she never recovered. Emily was 2. Don was a widower and a father, and he was gifted the daughter who liked to throw herself into the air and fall to an indeterminate end. And he just sat there and said, OK, all the way through the back and shoulder and feet, biting his tongue, keeping himself from telling her it was time to retire.

Because understand this about Cook: She would do this forever. If not for the fallibility of the human body — of bones' propensity to break and ligaments' to snap and muscles' to tear — she'd play aerialist as a granny. And she'd probably be really good then too. Half a dozen national championships, three Olympics, a fourth missed only because of injury and now an eighth-place finish, her highest yet at the Winter Games. She could keep going. She could.

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Except she's 34. In aerials, 34 is 100. She is an aerialist Methuselah. Thousands of hours of training allowed her body to withstand the punishment, and even with it, those aches throb a little more and those pains dig deeper. Don Cook never asked his daughter to stop because he understood that the sport would tell her when. The only person among the 22 aerialists who jumped at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park older than Cook was a woman named Alla Tsuper. She was 34 as well, in her fifth Olympics, never a medalist either. She had just became a mom and was planning on retiring after the Olympics regardless of her finish.

Then something incredible happened. Alla Tsuper of Belarus won a gold medal. American Ashley Caldwell, a strong medal contender who posted the day's highest score in qualifying, picked an inopportune time to miss a landing and dropped out after the first round of finals. Cook missed the cut after the second round. All of Tsuper's competition crashed or bobbled on their jumps, while Tsuper landed hers clean. She was the queen of the sport, and it raised the question of whether she really would retire, whether she could possibly go home when she was still capable of winning the Olympics.

She nodded.

Will this be Emily Cook's last Olympics? (Getty Images)

One of the first questions asked of Emily Cook was point blank: Is this your last Olympics?

"This is definitely the last Olympics," she said, "for sure."

She talked about being 34, how there's so much to do and see. She wants to take a vacation. To use her degree. To let her body heal. To help educate people about mental health after her friend and fellow aerialist Jeret "Speedy" Peterson killed himself three years ago.

To actually live instead of live the life of an elite athlete, which isn't miserable so much as monotonous. And though some thrive on the monotony, even eating filet mignon every day would get tedious, and crashing to the ground isn't filet.

Of course, we've heard this. Cook is like the Bud Selig of the ski world: She says she's going to retire and then, well, she doesn't.

"I've had trouble keeping that promise since 2002," she said.

Again and again, she persuades herself to stay. She wanted just one more season after the 2010 Olympics, and one season became Sochi, and that was supposed to be the end, and then she started a sentence Friday by saying: "Whether I retire or not …"

She talked about the national championships in March and how she definitely wants to ski those, which caught Don a little bit by surprise, because he had traveled here pretty sure he was seeing his baby fly for the final time. Only then she mentioned the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, saying there's no question she'd be there, though in what capacity she was unsure because she's still got plenty of stuff to sort out. Maybe it's as an administrator for the team or a coach. She played mother hen to Caldwell, whose reservoir of tears Friday knew no end, and she'd done that ever since a 14-year-old Caldwell showed up at training and reminded a 28-year-old Cook that "you're twice my age."

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That was more than half a decade ago. Cook is acutely aware of why she shouldn't, or, even better, why she can't keep going. And though the satisfaction was there — "The biggest emotion is definitely happiness," she said, and "I'm proud of my career and happy to move on to a new adventure" — the rush of aerials is a drug, and Cook will attest that kicking the habit takes a lot more than words.

When his baby girl went off jump No. 2 and sent herself, along with any caution, to the wind, Don Cook stared. Some parents can't stand to look. Others' eyes glaze over with fear. He had fidgeted for a couple of minutes in the lead-up, tracked her through the sky and cringed at her crash. His hands covered his mouth. They stayed there until Emily Cook stood up.

"There's a certain fear that all parents in this sport carry with regards to injuries," Don said, "and I watched her struggle through three years with major injuries, and ..."

He doesn't need to finish that sentence. The worst thing possible to happen to a spouse happened to Don Cook, and somehow he turned his 2-year-old without a mother into a three-time Olympian in the craziest sport the program offers. That sort of feat earns a parent anything, certainly the right to be nervous, and even the right to ask her to stop, because heaven knows he's been through enough.

That did not happen, though, and it never will, because even if Don wants Emily to quit, he believes that his daughter knows what is best for her, and he raised her that way. And so when she took those five steps toward him and said "Hi," he pulled her in tight and didn't ask her if this was enough. He said the same thing he always says no matter what she does.

"I'm proud of you."

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