The last time Annelies Cook competed on the Sochi biathlon course, she came away smiling.
Now the 29-year-old from Saranac Lake is hoping history can repeat itself as she returns to Russia, this time for her first Winter Olympics.
A member of the U.S. biathlon team since 2009, Cook is in her third season on the World Cup circuit. Her best results to date came at the Sochi World Cup last March, when she placed 14th in the 15-kilometer individual race and, the next day, 18th in the 7.5k sprint.
Cook said those results were "totally amazing for me," especially given the grueling nature of the biathlon course in Krasnaya Polyana.
"It's a tough, challenging course, probably the toughest I've raced, with unrelenting steep climbs and downhills that are scary," she said. "A lot of other athletes have negative perspectives about racing there, but it all came together for me. It helps to know that it's a place where I've had some good results."
Her strong performance in Sochi was part of what Cook described as a breakout season last winter. Ten of the 11 best finishes in her World Cup career came then.
Unfortunately, this season has been a different story. Cook has struggled, in part due to poor shooting, in part due to some nagging injuries. Her best result so far this winter was a 50th-place finish in the first World Cup of the year in Sweden.
"I came into this season with expectations for the first time, which was different from before," Cook said. "Before, it was more about improving. Once you have a couple good results, it changes your view on what you expect for yourself.
"It's been a tough couple months because I haven't been placing where I'd like to place. It seems like I've had good pieces, but I haven't put it all together. It's been frustrating, but I've been trying to keep my confidence up."
Cook has worked hard this season to improve her shooting, which she described as her weakness.
"I worked a lot on the setup and becoming more confident," she said. "I have improved a lot in training, and sometimes it takes time for that to show up in the races."
Cook's injuries, namely shin problems and back spasms, set her back during the first half of this season. She returned to Saranac Lake for the holidays to rest up and get some treatment at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid before rejoining the World Cup circuit.
Cook said the last World Cup stop before the Olympics, mid-January in Antholz, Italy, was the first time she felt really healthy again and was having fun. She was in fifth place at one point during the team relay, but the race was canceled before it was over due to fog.
"I felt like it was not a stretch that day to be with some of the strong skiers," Cook said. "It was exciting to me. Sometimes all it takes is one good day that gets your confidence back up."
Cook said her goal at the Olympics is to have a good performance.
"I want to finish a race and feel like I skied well and shot well and that turned into a good result," she said. "It would be awesome to get top 20 or top 30, but that's what I've been hoping for all year in any World Cup. I'm not going to the Olympics just be a participant. I want to do well for sure."
While this is her first Olympics, Cook is by no means a rookie. She grew up cross-country skiing and started competing in biathlon in high school. Later she spent four years at the Maine Winter Sports Center, training and competing on the junior biathlon circuit. She left the sport in 2005 to pursue a degree in international studies at the University of Utah, then rejoined the world of biathlon in 2009.
What are her plans after the Olympics? She said she wants to continue racing for at least another year.
"This year hasn't been exactly like I wanted it to be," she said. "I don't want to have a feeling where I retire and wonder, 'I could have done this.' I want to be happy with what I've tried and know that I gave it my best."