U.S. completes emotional ride to grab volleyball gold
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.
Merrill: Best And Worst
There may be no way to sum up the last 15 days, the absolute worst and best of Hugh McCutcheon's life, other than to say he's now an Olympic champion, Elizabeth Merrill writes. Story
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.
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.
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."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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