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Candrea returns to other lifelong love: softball

8/11/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- As tears welled up in Mike Candrea's eyes,
he slowly removed his glasses. His voice choked up, and the words
about his wife came haltingly.

"It's tough,'' the coach of the U.S. women's softball team
said, wiping his eye. "You know, Aug. 7 was our anniversary.''

Their day of celebration had become yet another day of mourning.
Less than a month ago, Mike Candrea buried his wife, Sue, who died
from a sudden brain aneurysm. And now, as he readied his gold-medal
favorites for the Athens Olympics, Candrea remembered the woman who
made his life better in so many ways.

"She allowed me to pursue my dreams,'' Candrea said Tuesday at
a news conference. "She was the one who kind of kept me in check,
never let my head get too swollen. ... She was my wife, my friend.
You don't realize how much you miss someone until they're not
there.''

For nearly three decades, Sue Candrea was there for her husband,
handling the checkbook and running their home as he turned the
Arizona softball program into a six-time NCAA champion. Sports was
a constant; their wedding date paid homage to Mike's favorite
baseball player, Mickey Mantle.

"The backbone of our family,'' her son, Mikel, said in a
eulogy. If Mike was in the dugout, she was generally nearby in the
stands.

The couple was to mark their 28th anniversary in Athens, where
Candrea -- who took over as national team coach two years ago --
would go for a gold medal. Two special moments at a single Summer
Games.

Sue's dedication prompted her retirement earlier this year. She
gave up her accounting job to travel with her husband and his team.
They were on a pre-Olympic "Aiming for Athens'' tour, with a stop
in Stevens Point, Wis., when Sue fell ill while awaiting a July 16
flight to Connecticut.

The 49-year-old was rushed to the hospital for emergency
surgery, but died two days later.

"This was a bolt of lightning out of the sky,'' Candrea said.
"One morning, she's walking on the treadmill. And the next moment,
she's gone.''

Candrea was overwhelmed by the tragedy, but also by the
response. He was flooded with calls from friends, with flowers from
the Greek and Canadian teams. The funeral drew hundreds of
mourners, including current Olympian Jennie Finch and a host of
Candrea's past players.

Once the initial shock subsided, Candrea was faced with a
decision: Would he go to Athens? The coach spoke with his children
and his mother-in-law, who each offered the same opinion: "You
belong on that field in Athens,'' Candrea said.

Candrea, 48, had an emotional reunion with his softball players
in Greece, where their support convinced him that coaching was the
right decision.

"I'm glad I have this group in my life right now, because
they're helping me get through this,'' he said. "Then again, this
is my extended family. It's been a real therapy for me to come
here.''

The Americans, two-time defending gold medalists, have dedicated
their effort to Sue's memory. "Whatever it takes to get that
medal,'' said Finch, who played for Candrea at Arizona.

Before the Aug. 14 opener, the Candrea children -- 24-year-old
Mikel and 21-year-old Michelle -- will arrive to cheer their father.
Candrea is certain that he has made the right choice, and looks
forward to the challenge.

"I just know Sue will be with me,'' he said. "This is what she
would want me to do. I'm just going to forge ahead."