Stacey Cook’s road to redemption stretches out ahead, four years long.
She knows it is going to be a difficult journey, both physically and psychologically, but if all goes well, the road will end at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Krasnodar Krai, Russia.
The 26-year-old downhill racer, Mammoth’s best hope on the U.S. Women’s Ski team, said she enters the 2010-2011 ski season as determined as ever, in spite of her horrific crash at last February’s Vancouver Games.
“I want to crack that podium that I’ve been knocking on for the last seven years,” she said recently over coffee at the Looney Bean. “But the results aren’t what I’m looking at every day now. It’s skiing to the best of my ability, and that’s a change from the past.
“Before, I was looking so much at results that I really found out that it didn’t work for me. It didn’t allow me to ski my best. It’s a huge change – the biggest change I’ve made as a skier.”
Cook, who finished fourth at Lake Louise last season but could get no closer to the podium afterward, said she has changed much about her life, including staying put in Mammoth this past summer instead of traveling to Hawaii, where she trained in summers past.
“Having some stability in my life seems to be helping,” she said. “Having four months at home seems to be something I was looking for. It’s a matter of pushing myself in smart ways, and not pushing myself as far as traveling so much. I may have been pushing myself too hard.”
Cook’s pathway to the podium was rudely interrupted last February’s Olympics, when, on a training run, she landed badly and lay in a tangled crumple against the safety nets, suffering hypothermia and not knowing where she was or how she got there.
That afternoon began in the snow and fog, with Italy’s superb downhiller Lucia Recchia the first scheduled skier.
Conditions were so dangerous that she never got into a tuck, standing the whole way down.
“She had the smarts to back off in conditions like that,” Cook said.
Race organizers then closed the course with Cook in the starting gate, waiting for the weather to clear enough to give her a chance at the course.
The weather did, in fact, clear up enough, so Cook began her training run in a light snow.
“I wasn’t going all out, but I was trying to ski the right lines and to ski technically well. But I got to the first jump 15 miles an hour faster than Recchia. The landing was a side hill, and I landed so much farther down the hill than she did.
“I landed in a hole. I thought I could pull it off but at that point there was nothing I could do and went straight into the fence.
“It was just incredibly bad luck,” Cook said. “I was skiing really well and fortunately, that jump was just built wrong, and I was the first one to figure it out.”
As she lay against the fence, waiting for help, her dreams for the 2010 Olympics also lay in ruins.
Cook was helicoptered out, but said she doesn’t remember much about that.
“I had no idea what was going on,” she said of the immediate aftermath of the crash. “The first time I realized I was at the Olympics was when I was in the CAT Scan machine and saw the Olympic rings. I thought, ‘No, this can’t be right.’
“When I finally came around it was really hard to accept. I went into that Olympics so prepared. I was skiing better than I ever had. I have to admit I shed a few tears.”
Even so, doctors cleared Cook to get back on the snow and, with the downhill pushed back further and further because of weather, she had a little time to recover.
“Instead of a battle for a medal,” she said, “the Olympics became a battle for myself – to prove that I could get back up and put it behind me. The next training run, I was crying in the starting gate because I was so nervous and I skied terrible. On actual race day, I forced confidence on myself, and I’m proud of that. But I also knew I wasn’t going to win a medal, and that was kind of heartbreaking.”
Cook ended up 11th in the Vancouver downhill, and anyone else may have accepted the result as a triumph. Cook said she is doing the best she can to buy that.
“Taking that as a positive isn’t as easy as you might think, but it definitely has me fired up for another four years to give it another try.”
Cook said she will try to qualify for the FIS World Cup Giant Slalom at Aspen over Thanksgiving weekend, even though GS is not her specialty. Her first downhill will be at the Lake Louise FIS Women’s Winterstart World Cup Women’s Downhill and Super G Dec. 3-5.
After that, it’s off to Europe for the World Cup tour, the first steps of a four-year march to Russia.
“The World Cup means a whole lot,” she said, “as does the World Championships.
“But it’s the Olympics where redemption has to come. It’s so different than the World Cup. It means so much to me.”