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U.S. completes emotional ride to grab volleyball gold

8/24/2008

BEIJING -- As the crowd roared and his team exulted in its
gold medals, the coach of the U.S. men's volleyball team buried his
head in his hands and walked off the court. He had gone from the
lowest low to the highest high, and it was all too much.

Hugh McCutcheon needed to be alone.

Just two weeks ago, at the start of the Olympics, his
father-in-law had been stabbed to death in Beijing. He stepped away
from his job to take care of his family. But his team, stirred by
the tragedy, began an incredible run, ending Sunday with a 3-1
victory over defending champion Brazil -- a team that they were
never expected to beat.

"It all was starting to sink in," he said. "I had to take a
step out and collect my thoughts and collect my emotions and come
back out. It's a very meaningful moment."

In two weeks of competition, the Americans were undefeated. The
20-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-23 final gave the U.S. men their third
Olympic gold medal in the sport, matching the record set by the
Russians. Top-ranked Brazil, a two-time gold medalist, was left
with the silver medal. Russia won the bronze earlier in the day
with a three-set victory over Italy.

Usually, the Olympic focus is on the athletes. But the tragedy
endured by this coach was an integral part of his team's story.

"He'll be the first to tell you that winning won't bring Todd
back," U.S. wing spiker Reid Priddy said. "However this is a goal
that he and his family have invested their lives in, just like we
have. And so I know this is an incredibly special moment for us."

Todd Bachman was killed while sightseeing at the 13th-century
Drum Tower in Beijing the day after opening ceremonies. Bachman's
wife, Barbara, was badly wounded; the assailant jumped to his death
from the tower.

McCutcheon missed the team's first three games to be with his
wife, former volleyball Olympian Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman
McCutcheon, who was there when the attack occurred. Barbara Bachman
eventually improved enough to return to the U.S. by air ambulance.

McCutcheon's assistant Ron Larsen was interim head coach while
McCutcheon was with his family. And it was his assistants who
McCutcheon hugged after the final point Sunday, before walking
away. He did not return for a long while, and when he did, he
embraced veteran Lloy Ball.

"It dawned on me that we'd just won the thing and I grabbed my
staff. They've been so instrumental in our success, obviously for
the first three matches of this tournament they were without me and
they did a wonderful job. Then after I shook the coaches' hands, it
was just a little too much," he said.

McCutcheon raised his hands in victory at the medal ceremony.

"I'm sure he was overwhelmed by everything, not only what
happened on the volleyball court," U.S. libero Richard Lambourne
said. "It's just something he poured his heart and soul into for
the last four years."

"But certainly with the tragedy that befell his family at the
beginning of these games, I'm so happy he was able to be here and
experience this with us," he added. "Because he's a huge, if not
the biggest, part of our team."

The Americans won gold in 1984 and 1988 before taking the bronze
in Barcelona. They finished fourth in Athens in 2004.

A day earlier, in another U.S.-Brazil volleyball showdown, the
U.S. women came away with a silver medal after losing 3-1. It was
the first time since the 1984 Los Angeles Games that both the
American men and women advanced to the Olympic finals.

The men's victory was secured when Clayton Stanley's spike
sailed toward Brazilian star Giba, who popped the ball out of
bounds. Giba crouched on the floor in disbelief, and the U.S. team
rushed on the court to embrace.

Brazil has dominated international play most of this decade and
was favored to win the gold in Beijing. In addition to winning in
Athens in 2004, the team won the World Cup last year, defending its
2003 title. It also took gold in the 2002 and 2006 world
championships, and had won Olympic gold in 1992.

Stanley scored 20 points to lead the Americans. Dante Amaral
paced Brazil with 15. The Brazilians won the first set and looked
to be on their way to gold, but the Americans won the next three.

"It's hard to analyze the match right now. The U.S. played very
well. They've grown a lot in the last few years," Giba said. "We
did our best, but the best was not enough."

Throughout the games, team members marked their shoes with the
initials of Todd and Barbara Bachman as a gesture of sympathy and
support. McCutcheon said his father-in-law was an avid volleyball
fan, and he would have been proud of the team's achievements.

"It hasn't been easy, not that it was ever going to be easy.
But when you throw in the emotional load that the team has had to
bear collectively, for them to come through and be this good is a
wonderful achievement," he said.

McCutcheon planned to return to the United States on Sunday
night. He had already spoken to his wife, who stayed up late in the
United States to watch the match: "She said it first. She said,
'You won, you won, you won.' Nothing else to say there, just
listening to each other smile on the phone."

And so it was over.

"We need to get home and get on with that now," McCutcheon
said. "My work here is done."