By John Blanchette | Feb. 18, 2016, 11:27 a.m. (ET)
Kassidy Cook dives during the women's 3-meter springboard preliminaries at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center at the AT&T USA Diving Grand Prix on May 10, 2012 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.


Kassidy Cook’s appearance on a springboard this weekend in Rio de Janeiro isn’t for herself, per se. But given how long it’s been since she’s competed internationally, how could it not be — at least a little?

“It’s very exciting to be back,” she said. “It’s almost like nothing has changed. Except for me.”

Four years after she narrowly missed making the U.S. team for the London 2012 Olympic Games, the 20-year-old Cook continues her long comeback from injury as part of the U.S. roster for the FINA Diving World Cup that begins Friday in Rio.

The meet is the last opportunity for countries to nail down quota spots for the 2016 Games, which convene in less than six months at the same Maria Lenk Aquatic Center. For the U.S. team, that could mean as many as 10 more quotas in addition to the single berths already secured in men’s and women’s 10-meter.

That makes this World Cup less a medal hunt and more of a mission.

“I’m not diving for myself at all,” insisted Cook, who hasn’t been on the international stage since 2012, prior to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. “It doesn’t factor into my personal journey to the Olympics or better my chances for the trials. If we don’t get the spots, there’s not going to be a trials.

“So I feel pressure, but I do well under pressure.”

She does even better when healthy. Getting to that point has been a journey all its own.

Cook was just 17 and not yet a senior in high school when her first Olympic run came up painfully short, she and Christina Loukas finishing just 0.42 points behind Abby Johnston and Kelci Bryant for the synchronized 3-meter berth to London, on top of a fourth-place individual finish. Devastating was not too strong a word.

“To come that close is way worse than missing by a bunch,” Cook said. “I’ve got a video on my phone, this summary of the event, and I watch it as motivation on those days I don’t want to practice or I’m losing sight of my goals. It’s a tough process to go through, but if you use it the right way there’s a chance it’ll all make sense in the end.”

Soon, big-picture thinking like that was all she could cling to: A 360-degree tear of her labrum sent her into surgery and a long rehab. Not long after she got back on the board, she had more issues that led to a second surgery in 2013.

Cook battled back to compete in a couple of domestic championships in 2014 (she was third in the 1-meter at nationals), but it wasn’t until last March that her strength and confidence truly returned. To bolster her Olympic drive, she took a year off from school at Stanford and moved back to Texas to work with coach Ken Armstrong.

The payoff was swift. Cook won 3-meter titles at both the summer and winter nationals.

“One of my biggest fears was that I’d never get back to where I was,” she said, “that maybe I’d peaked as a teenager. But I started to make some changes with Kenny that I never would have made before, and I’m a better diver now.”

That figures to serve her well in Rio, where she and Johnston will try to earn the two quota spots available in the women’s 3-meter event. Johnston is one of four divers pulling double duty, teaming with Laura Ryan in the women’s 3-meter synchronized. Jessica Parratto (women’s 10-meter), Steele Johnson (men’s 10-meter) and Kristian Ipsen (men’s 3-meter) are also doubling in individual and synchro events.

The United States can earn up to two quota spots in each individual discipline, and one in each of the synchronized events. Essentially, that requires a top-18 individual finish in this World Cup, and one of the top four spots in synchro among teams that have not already qualified. Four of the eight Olympic berths in synchro events have been filled (three at last year’s world championships and one went to the host country).

If there’s a subtext for Cook, it’s building on her recent success and carrying through this event, another possible grand prix appearance in Puerto Rico next month and the Olympic trials in June, when what spots the U.S. team does earn this weekend will be filled.

“I don’t feel behind,” she said, “but my name hasn’t been out there for a while. The international judges may have forgotten about me a little.

“But the big job is just to earn a spot for the U.S. and not get too far ahead of myself. I’m just going to do my thing. If I think about it too much, that’s going to mess me up. It’s just about having fun and relying on my abilities — and not let my brain get in the way. I think if every diver could be the best diver if they could just turn off their brain.”

John Blanchette is a sportswriter from Spokane, Washington. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.