BEIJING — The most touching moments in sports come without careful planning. No one orchestrates them. No one rehearses them.
They just … happen.
The horror was behind them now, and the opportunity was in front. So the members of the United States men's volleyball team lingered on the floor of the Capital Indoor Stadium moments before their first competition of the Olympics.
And then they were together, circled like wagons, their arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, and their heads bowed as one. On the outside of the circle was tragedy and pain and the true sense of loss. Inside was, well, each other.
On this day, however, the circle was one man short.
The United States went on without Hugh McCutcheon on Sunday. Sharing the heartache of their coach, playing without him on their sideline, the players somehow gathered themselves enough to beat Venezuela in a five-set match.
How difficult must this have been? Only a day earlier, the team had been stunned by the stabbings of Todd and Barbara Bachman, McCutcheon's in-laws and familiar supporters of the team. The Bachmans are the parents of Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman, a former Olympian on the women's volleyball team who had married McCutcheon 20 months ago.
And now Todd was dead and Barbara was in critical but stable condition (she was upgraded to stable early this morning), and the pain of it all shot through an entire team. There were still more questions than answers, and still more agony than anticipation.
Still, it was time to play, and no one on the United States team had given a thought to asking for a postponement. For four years the players had worked toward this. They are ranked No. 3 in the world behind Brazil and Russia, and two weeks ago they won the World League championship. Before the game began, however, the players moved toward each other to form their version of a unity circle.
This is not a volleyball ritual. Teams do not embrace in pregame warmups. On the other hand, who was going to stop them?
"They weren't going to start without us," team captain Thomas Hoff said. "We wanted to have a moment of silence where we could gather our thoughts. We wanted to honor the Bachman family and Hugh's family."
How does a team honor the missing? At first, the players wanted to put something on their jerseys to acknowledge the Bachmans and McCutcheon. But there was not time. So the players painted the initials of the Bachmans on the back of their shoes. Then someone mentioned something about gathering on the floor.
"We wanted to take a couple of moments to let (McCutcheon) know we were thinking about him," team member Ryan Millar said.
For now the team is being coached by assistant Ron Larsen. No one is sure when, or if, McCutcheon will return. He had spoken to his players only once, on a conference call Saturday night.
On Sunday, the sideline was not quite the same without him. The players speak well of Larsen, but a head coach is usually the driving force of his team. McCutcheon is a 6-foot-6 passionate New Zealander. Lloy Ball said it was "weird" not seeing him on the sideline. Hoff referred to his absence as "a hole."
Larsen, too, missed him.
"I'd much rather be sitting on the bench telling him what I think he should be doing and having him say 'I don't think so' than where I am right now," Larsen said.
Say this much for the U.S. team's focus: Once the match began, the team managed to focus pretty well. There was no more overt show of emotion.
"Our knee-jerk reactions were like any other human being's," said Ball. "We were angry. We were upset. We wanted to talk to our friends and family who are here and back home.
"As a male sport, we tend to hide our feelings a lot. But there was definitely a moment where guys let off how they felt about the situation. How they felt about Hugh not being on the bench. It was a chance for everybody to open up and get it off their chests."
Yes, they feel safe, said Riley Salmon. And yes, they are concerned.
Salmon's parents are on his way to China. Ball's, too.
"You can't live in fear or anger," Ball said.
Instead, all a team can do is play. And wait.
"We would love to have Hugh back on the sidelines so we could have his big arms around us and we could put our arms around him," Larsen said.
Then, at least, the circle would be complete. The team, too.