02/15/2014 06:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Olympics We Don't See

When it comes to the Olympics, we focus on the stars. Bode Miller. Shani Davis. Shaun White.

There's only so much airtime, and they are the champions -- the millionaire athletes best known and most loved. When they succeed, we laud their greatness. When they fail, we react in shock... and then move on to the next story.

But what about the Olympians who finish 17th or don't finish at all?

What about them?

I found out firsthand that their sense of loss, their shattered expectations are equally painful, perhaps more so.

We don't tell the story of Stacey Cook, the 29-year-old American who has dedicated her life to skiing. Just a month ago, she finished fifth in a World Cup downhill event. She came to the Olympics with confidence that she could surprise people.


She is leaving Russia devastated.

She is exactly that person, finishing 17th in the women's downhill and falling off course during the Super Giant Slalom for a DNF.

"I'm numb," she admitted the day before Saturday's Super G. "It's hard to describe how I feel. That downhill result was so deflating -- to work so hard and to be so close or in a place I felt was so close -- because the other Olympics, I haven't been in a place where I thought I could be.

"This was so different. I did everything right."

Except get the result for which she dreamed.

Listening to her raw emotion was difficult. Then, watching her in the Super G -- knowing how emotional she was just the day before -- was harrowing. Truly. After meeting her for just one day, I wanted her to do well. I still cannot shake the image of her sliding off course. And this is a person I may never see again.

The takeaway is this: All the athletes want to win. Most even think that they can win.

We don't often see the aftermath for those athletes. We only imagine. Or we don't think about them at all. Or, we assume they were realistic with their expectations, so the results shouldn't be that disappointing.

But those are the assumptions of people who don't get to see what I saw. Stacey Cook is an elite skier. She's also one most people don't know. She wanted better. She expected better. Gold? Maybe not. However, if she was fifth in the world in the event just a month ago, it wasn't unreasonable to hope for a shocking surprise and, perhaps, a medal.

"It's just heartbreaking," said Cook, who then paused. "But I still love it."

Cook says she may well continue to ski and try again for South Korea in 2018. If not, there's no need to worry. She has a great future, albeit different than a Julia Mancuso or Lindsay Vonn. They all love to ski, but Cook doesn't view her alpine career as being how she self-identifies once she's done skiing. Mancuso and Vonn will make a living off their marketability and name recognition. Cook will finish school and do something else, whether it's building on her non-profit work or an entirely new venture.

So, if you never think of her again, know this: The skiers who finish 17th still want to win, and they are still crushed by defeat, even if the television never shows it.