Stacey Cook remembers standing in the starting gate at the 2010 Winter Olympics, waiting for her downhill training run on the Whistler slopes. The next thing she remembers from that day is being in a CAT scan machine "and having no idea where I was."
Cook had suffered a horrendous crash. Skiing down the course in such heavy snow and thick fog that officials would cancel the training session, she lost control on a jump and flew full speed into the safety netting.
"Her crash in Vancouver was like being shot out of a cannon, and she was the cannonball," said U.S. women's speed coach Chip White. "She was so high and flew so far it was like being a test pilot when [the flight] doesn't exactly go as planned."
Cook had to be airlifted to a hospital from the mountain. She says she suffered a concussion and that her body ached so much she could barely move. Yet five days later, she was back on the slope for another training run. The day after that she was competing in the downhill, flying down the mountain so fast she crossed the finish line with what was briefly the day's fastest time.
"I was psyched because I came down across the line winning," said Cook, who wound up 11th in the event, with Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso taking gold and silver. "Then the next person [Austria's Elisabeth Goergl] crushed me by 1.3 seconds. She wound up getting a medal, but I was so bummed. I know I'm not on a lot of people's radar as a medal contender, but I thought it was in my range because I was skiing better than I ever had.
"After the race, I didn't want to go see my parents; I didn't want to talk to my coaches. I went straight back to the team house and locked myself in my room. I felt like it was unfair that [in the training run] I went early and was kind of the test dummy who figured out the jump was built wrong and having my chances stripped away like that."
Cook, 28, still gets emotional talking about that day, but she says she wouldn't change what happened. She says she has grown into a better, stronger, more confident skier because of the crash.
"It's strange that you can gain confidence from something like that, but it's true,'' she said. "Like they say … what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
And a bit wiser. "This is all part of gaining experience," White said. "Some experiences are good and you strive to repeat them, and others are experiences you never want to repeat. This is where one begins to gain wisdom. This was one of those 'Notes to self: Don't repeat.' Since that crash she has been on a mission to be one of the best jumpers in the world, which she is today."
Indeed, Cook is having an excellent World Cup season, with two second-place finishes at Lake Louise. She is part of what had been a superb season for the U.S. women prior to Vonn's ligament-tearing crash last week in Austria.
"People ask us what we're doing different, what's changed, but nothing has changed," Cook said. "We kind of crept up on the situation because we've been in the shadows of Lindsey and Julia and everyone pays so much attention to them. But in the last few years, the rest of us girls have been building up and gaining momentum every year."
The plan is for that momentum to carry Cook to the Sochi Olympics next year when she can see what's possible in top form.
"I want another chance -- a fair chance, I guess," said Cook, who finished ninth in the downhill at a World Cup race in Sochi last year. "I think I feel I was pretty unlucky in Vancouver, and I want another go at it."
Added White: "Next year, Stacey is in a prime position mentally and physically to strike and strike hard. I have all the confidence in the world that she can achieve any of her goals, barring any unfortunate setbacks."
That would include another concussion-inducing crash. Cook suffered a worse concussion in a 2005 crash that caused about two weeks of foggy memory loss.
"I've been told that one more concussion and I'm probably done," she said. "It's something that definitely looms. But as soon as you worry about that, that's when something goes wrong.
"All I can do is try to be as strong a skier as possible and not be scared."
She's been strong this season. Now it's just a matter of doing it in Sochi.
"In the years since Vancouver, I've done a lot of things in my career that I didn't think possible," Cook said. "That whole situation taught me to believe in myself and that I'm capable of doing things I didn't know I could."