FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2015, file photo, Kassidy Cook competes during the USA Diving Winter National Championship's women's 3-meter finals in Indianapolis. Four years after her synchro 3-meter team had just missed out on making the American team, Cook is in the lead in the 3-meter event at the U.S. Olympic diving trials in Indianapolis.

Cook finds all right ingredients in 2016 Olympic comeback

By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Kassidy Cook's painful memories from four years ago could have derailed her Olympic dream.

Missing most of the ensuing three years might have prompted someone else to retire.

Instead, this tough Texan went back to work following a serious shoulder injury, fought her way back onto the national team after a four-year hiatus and finds herself just five dives away from redemption at the U.S. Olympic diving trials in Indianapolis. Cook leads the 3-meter event by 34.3 points over Abby Johnston.

"Those three years, I hung onto the idea of making the Olympics, even if I had never gotten back to being my full self," Cook said. "I knew people behind the scenes were saying 'she's lost it.'"

For a while, the critics were right about her being down.

When she realized her synchro 3-meter team had come up a minuscule 0.42 points short of making the 2012 American team, she immediately began crying on her coach's shoulder.

Even worse, she was the only one of the four left behind. Cook's partner, Christina Loukas, went to London after qualifying in the individual 3-meter, and the pair that won the synchro event, Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston, went on to claim the silver medal.

And Cooke returned home to find a cruel and unkind social media world.

"I will never forget after trials, people were posting very negative comments on social media pages and I went on there and said 'That was by far my toughest competition,'" said Bryant, who now works for USA Diving. "I was crying, too. But I was tears of joy and she was crying tears, well, not of joy. I knew what that felt like after coming in fourth in Beijing."

The combination sent the teenager down a rocky road.

When Cook returned to the pool, she started working on the 10-meter platform and completely tore the labrum in her right shoulder. Surgery was set for the same day as the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies, which she watched from her hospital bed. It rekindled all those memories from the trials in Seattle.

By May 2013, Cook's shoulder was still clicking and popping, so doctors went back in to fix another piece of the shoulder, and she lost another season.

The entire process left her with eight metal anchors in what she now refers to as her bionic shoulder.

A year later, Cook went back under the knife to fix a torn meniscus in her right knee. That cost her another 2 to 3 months and even had the 19-year-old pondering her future in the sport.

"They say in diving it takes twice as long to get back as it does to get the skills down because there is so much muscle memory involved. I had to start from scratch," she said. "I didn't know if I was going to get back to the point where I was."

But she was also motivated to prove everyone else wrong.

The comeback began in March 2015, giving Cook less than 18 months to train for an event that normally requires four full years. Worried that another injury could end her hopes yet again, Cook played it smart.

She got stronger to alleviate the pain and believes she's now jumping higher and ripping through the water harder than she did before.

She took a more mature approach to the sport, which has allowed her to keep her adrenaline under control, and proved she could still do most of the same dives she had been working on.

In short, she's come back a better diver.

"That makes her so much stronger because she knows now that she could have the best meet of her life and one or two other girls could the best meet of their lives and she could go home again," Bryant said. "I'm very, very impressed seeing her be out a while and getting up and competing. I told her at the World Cup in Rio that I'm glad I'm not diving against her now."

The irony is that now, Cook and Johnston again find themselves in the top two spots.

Only this time, if they can stay ahead of the pack, both will go to Rio -- and Cook's comeback will almost be complete.

"It's hard knowing that you may be setting yourself up for another heartbreak," Cook said. "But I'm an all-or-nothing person, so I had to give it a shot."