Victory brings back bittersweet memories

Updated: August 23, 2004, 10:32 PM ET
By Eric Adelson | ESPN The Magazine

ATHENS, Greece -- The blonde girl in the red, white, and blue ponytail cried. And the team chaplain cried. And somewhere, the New England Patriots linebacker's wife cried. They cried for the same reasons, and for different reasons. And this must be why the Olympic rings are all linked, but do not come together in a circle.

Jennie Finch
Getty ImagesThe softball team has helped carrry coach Mike Candrea forward since his wife's sudden death.

Jennie Finch bounded off the field in her ponytail and face glitter. She truly was a golden girl now. She gabbed deliriously about a teammate's home run and yet another home run and even about watching the biggest game of her life from the dugout.

Then someone mentioned her coach's late wife. Not her whole name. Just the first: Sue. And the golden girl got a glitter in her eye to match the sparkle on her face. "Every pitch," she sniffed, "she was right there." Moments later, the girl with the ribbon stood on the top tier of a podium, and the tears washed over her face.

Sue Candrea, Coach Mike's wife, died from a brain aneurysm only days before these Games began. The players -- gold-medalists now -- all have a pocket-sized picture of Sue. It shows Sue locked in her husband's arm, smiling. It's an everything'll-be-OK smile. Next to the picture is a passage from the Bible. "Do not be anxious about anything," the scripture says.

Sue had that soothing way. So did one of her husband's former players, Julie Reitan. Julie was a left fielder who often led the team in prayer during their climb to the top of the softball world in the '90s. Julie kept everyone grounded, kept everyone calm.

Julie played for Mike Candrea on the NCAA champion Arizona team of 1997. A month after winning the title, she went to the wedding rehearsal dinner of friend and teammate Heidi Bomberger, who was getting ready to marry future Super Bowl winner Tedy Bruschi. Julie, who had juvenile onset diabetes, came home from that dinner and went to sleep. She could not have known her blood sugar had dropped severely. Julie never woke up.

Arizona retired Julie's number 10, and hung it out in left field where she played. Her father, Mark, is now Team USA's chaplain. Here for the team. Here for Julie. And now, here for Coach Mike.

Mark Reitan got through his daughter's death with the help of Heidi's dad, Bob Bomberger. See, Heidi also lost her brother, Rex, to suicide a few years before Julie died. Rex's death was sudden like Julie's. Sudden like Sue's. One day here, one day gone. Back then, Pastor Mark could not imagine losing a child. "So after Julie died," says Mark. "I knew I could make it when I saw Bob."

And Pastor Mark begins to cry, feeling what only a parent of a lost child can feel.

Before coming to Athens, Pastor Mark compiled a collection of devotional readings for Team USA. Mark came up with a different reading for each day. He saved a special passage from Corinthians for Monday -- the day of the gold medal game.

"Keep alert," it says. "Stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be in love."

This was Julie's favorite saying. It is written on her gravestone. The players have recited it over and over again. Monday, they all read it once more. For themselves. For Julie. And for Sue.

On TV, these athletes look so sure. On the field, they know everything, do everything. But they also are young women who don't always know where to turn when the game ends. And now, when the cameras turn away, there will be days when their coach does not know either.

Coach Mike drives an hour from home to work. His wife always told him to get all his emotions out on that drive, so he can be strong for his players. So he could be strong for Heidi. So he could be strong for Pastor Mark. Now Heidi and Pastor Mark must be strong for the coach.

"It's going to be a long, hard hour in that car," says Mark's wife, Elaine. "He has to come home to an empty house."

The coach is here for Sue, and the pastor is here for Julie. But really, everyone is here for everyone now that Sue and Julie are gone. That's the happy ending, and the sad ending. The team is perfect, but so much is imperfect. Coach Mike is grateful for Sue's life, and Pastor Mark is grateful for Julie's life, and Heidi is grateful for her brother's life. But the golden glitter is mixed with salty tears. There cannot be one without the other. This team won so much in part because it lost so much.

The rings can all come together, but they cannot come together in a circle.

"I don't think it can come full circle," Pastor Mark says, "because full circle will be seeing them in heaven."

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com. Seth Wickersham contributed to this story.

Eric Adelson | email

ESPN The Magazine
Eric Adelson was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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