Gerina Piller endures highs, and lows, of Olympics

After playing the final round of the women's Olympic tournament tournament in the last pairing Saturday, Gerina Piller showed just how much she wanted that medal. The 31-year-old American finished tied for 11th. Melissa Isaacson/ESPN.com

RIO DE JANEIRO -- The face of defeat is, in this case, not at all ugly but rather strikingly beautiful. A USA visor partially shields it, which is helpful for American golfer Gerina Piller because at the moment, she is unable to contain her tears or answer any more questions.

There are no real answers anyway. "Golf is golf," said Piller's mother, and anyone who has ever picked up a club or glimpsed the game can understand, even where the greatest players in the world are concerned.

And so the improbable journey of a 31-year-old woman having the greatest week of her life -- and the worst -- came to an end Saturday on the Olympic Golf Course when Piller went from a tie for second through three rounds to a tie for 11th. There were 4 shots and eight players between her and her dream of making the medal platform.

Her parents, Rita and Alan Stevenson, spoke of the deep connection their daughter has to the United States, but more than that, perhaps, to the concept of sacrifice. Rita was a single mother with three kids, Gerina her youngest, when she met Alan. She became an elementary school P.E. teacher and he a cop. Together they would have two more children.

But when Alan talks about family, the word "step" neither is used nor applies. Of all the enduring images at these Olympics, the Usain Bolt poses and the world-record smiles, there could be none sweeter or sadder than the sight of Gerina Piller taking her father's hand on one side and accepting her mother's arm around her shoulder on the other for the long walk to the clubhouse.

"What did you say to one another?" Rita and Alan were asked.

Rita shook her head.

"What would you say?" she asked.

Rita did not play golf, but she is built like an athlete and says she idolizes a daughter who played Little League baseball with the boys. Gerina didn't even take up golf until the age of 15 and did so because the family thought that was her best shot at a college education.

Since then, Piller has literally chipped away, improving in small increments. Her high point until this summer was her Solheim Cup-saving putt for the U.S. last September. Ranked 28th to begin 2016, she had yet to win a tournament in her career, but was moving up. Still, the idea a top-15 ranking by July, which would be needed to make the U.S. Olympic team, seemed highly unlikely.

An eighth-place finish at the U.S. Open got her the last-second ticket to Rio by nine-one-hundredths of a rankings point, and suddenly this native New Mexican whose favorite colors are surely red, white and blue, was crying at a Tuesday news conference before the Olympic competition began.

"I'm just so proud to be an American," Piller said a day before finishing her first round in an eight-way tie for 11th, but just 4 strokes in back of the leader. A podium finish looked even more possible after Friday's windy third round, which Piller began with four birdies on the first seven holes and ended in a tie for second with Lydia Ko at 9 under, just 2 shots behind eventual gold-medal winner Inbee Park from South Korea.

What happened Saturday is golf. Playing in the final group with Park and Ko, Piller bogeyed three holes but birdied two on the front nine, then had chances to make birdie putts on the final four holes after bogeying 13 and 14, and just didn't.

"The putts didn't fall the way they did [Friday]," she said, "so there's kind of nothing you can do about that."

She said she tried not to think about Park birdieing three of the final six holes after birdieing four on the front nine, but how do you not when you're standing next to her?

"It's tough just because there was so much on the line," Piller said. "Golf being back in the Olympics for the first time, there's a lot of history. You want to stay in the moment, but you want to allow yourself to see those positive thoughts and see yourself hitting those tough shots and just the feelings and everything. So I felt like maybe I held on a little too tight."

The frustration poured out in a tearful embrace with caddie Brian Dilley after she made par on 18.

Their family, Alan Stevenson said, is not defined by wins and losses, but undoubtedly adding to the disappointment Saturday was the fact that Gerina's husband Martin, a PGA Tour pro, failed to keep his tour card when he missed the cut at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina. Rather than going back home to Texas, Martin Piller stayed at the club Saturday to watch Gerina on the locker room TV.

"She did want a medal," Alan said, "but like Rita said, she understands how broad our country is. It's not just a single layer of something to consider and think about. It's all those people who came before us to get us to where we are today and how we can be who we are and do what we do.

"So many people wanted to be here and she barely made it out of the U.S. Open. She does not take anything for granted, I can tell you that for sure. She's very thankful. She's very grounded about that. She cares deeply about our family, especially her husband."

He teared up at that point, too, at the subject of Martin and of family, a daughter's broken dream overcoming him as well as his wife as she watched her husband start to lose it.

It is the other side of these Games, to be sure. And not one that necessarily catches the attention of every television camera. The athletes are supposed to be thrilled to be here, excited to get all the Olympic swag, but pros like Piller get very little for appearing in Rio. It really is about the chance to medal. About marching in the opening, and for Piller, closing ceremonies, too.

It was no doubt a combination of things that had her unable to speak Saturday as she embraced her parents not far from where the medals would be handed out. At 31, she needed hugs. That never changes.

"The thing about Gerina and her heart is that she'll keep coming back. She'll keep showing up, she'll keep stepping up there on the tee box and keep swinging it. She's not going to quit swinging it. She wants to win. And some day she will win. And today wasn't that day, but she competed and put her heart and soul in it.

"We're heartbroken with her. ... We want what she wants. But some days you don't get that and you keep working and you keep playing and you keep competing and you keep showing up. She'll be fine."

That much seems certain.