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Volleyball coach McCutcheon's Games bookends: pain, bliss

Elisabeth Bachman, center, wife of U.S. men’s volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, poses with her father, Todd, who was killed, and mother Barbara, who was badly injured in a knife attack by a Chinese man the day after the opening ceremony.

Associated Press

Elisabeth Bachman, center, wife of U.S. men’s volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, poses with her father, Todd, who was killed, and mother Barbara, who was badly injured in a knife attack by a Chinese man the day after the opening ceremony.

BEIJING — Is it possible for a broken heart to soar? Is it possible for a soul in pain to be wrapped in joy?

Before you decide, perhaps you should take a look at the teardrops as they stream down the face of Hugh McCutcheon, the coach dressed in black.

Finally, all the emotions had burst through the filters, and McCutcheon, the coach of the U.S. men's volleyball team, could not hold back his feelings. In front of him, his team was celebrating, and back home, his family was mourning.

And so the tears came, unchecked. Sorrow was there, and pride was there. Agony was there, and achievement was there. A significant victory had been added to an even more significant loss, and together they were the brackets on one man's Olympics.

McCutcheon had come full circle. Only hours after the opening ceremony, a madman had murdered his father-in-law and critically injured his mother-in-law. Now it was hours before the closing ceremony, and McCutcheon, the coach who refused to abandon his team, had just coached it to a gold-medal victory over a vaunted Brazilian team.

And so the tears came. For his father-in-law and for the success of his team. For his grieving wife and for a journey from volleyball mediocrity. For his mother-in-law and for a gold medal that justified four years of coaching. For all of it.

"You can't separate the experience," McCutcheon, 38, would say later. "We can't change what happened. This isn't vindication. This isn't going to alter any outcome. I mourn for my father-in-law, and my heart aches for my wife. At the same time, I'm proud of my team.

"And we can do that. We can feel happy and still have a tinge of sadness. It's possible to be active in both of those spheres."

Of course you remember the story. It was on the first Saturday of the Olympics, the day before the volleyball team began its competition. Todd Bachman and his wife, Barbara, were touring the Drum Tower with their daughter, former U.S. Olympian Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman. A man named Tang Yongming rushed them and stabbed Todd and Barbara. He then leaped to his death from the tower.

McCutcheon missed his team's first three games, and let's face it, no one would have blamed him for turning over control of the team.

Instead, he stayed, and he turned the sideline into his Fortress of Solitude. Prowling there, he looked like any coach on an NFL sideline, his face impassive and his arms folded until a key moment, and then his features transformed into something focused and furious.

How does a man do this? How does he absorb a family tragedy? How does he put his grieving wife on a plane and send her home to tend to her mother while he stays behind? How does he work a sideline in the name of a volleyball game when there are wounds to heal and a funeral to plan?

"I don't know how you do it," McCutcheon said. "You just do. There are so many other lives invested in this project other than my own. When I had to take some time off, I knew it wasn't helping my team. When I came back, I had to be 100 percent invested in what we're doing and be fully present in the team."

For McCutcheon, it helped that his wife had been an Olympian herself. Wiz had been a proponent of her husband staying all along.

"She gets it," McCutcheon said. "This is where I needed to be. This is how it had to happen."

Perhaps that is why, as he stood in the hallway, waiting to see his team stand on a platform and accept its gold medals, McCutcheon borrowed a cell phone to call home. His wife answered.

"You won, you won, you won," she told her husband. And then there were no more words for several moments.

"There was nothing left to say," McCutcheon said. "We were just kind of listening to each other smile into the phone."

For the U.S. team, there were enough smiles to go around. These were the Brazilians, after all, the No. 1 ranked team in the world, the defending Olympic champion. Or, as McCutcheon said, the "gold standard" of the sport. As for the United States, it hasn't been long since the team was ranked eighth in the world. To win an Olympic gold, McCutcheon said, "is hugely against the odds."

Yet, after losing the opening set, the Americans won three in a row. Perhaps this is what happens when a team runs on emotion, when it decides all it can do to help a coach in pain is to keep winning matches in the manner he had taught.

"I don't know if I have the words to say what it says about a man (to coach through the grief)," said U.S. player Richard Lambourne. "That's an amazing thing to able to compartmentalize on a certain level, to be so in the moment when you're here as our leader and our coach, and then go away and deal with whatever he's had to deal with when he's away from the court. It's an unbelievable thing."

He is a tall man, McCutcheon, and whatever hair he has left has been shaved away. His eyes look weary, and he admits his sleep has been "patchy" these past two weeks Every now and then, you can detect the lilt of his native New Zealand in his soft voice.

By nature, he says, he is also a private man. Despite that, he has spoken often and honestly while here about the tragedy and the resulting turmoil.

"We felt it was a way to say thank you to the world for the sympathy and the condolences," McCutcheon said. "We wanted to let everyone know we're okay. Obviously, we still have work to do and grieving to do. But we were able to take care of things here."

For McCutcheon, there have been a lot of emotions to sort through. Anger, he says, has not been one.

"You're talking about an act with no motive,'' he said. "Who knows why he did what he did? If I spent time getting angry, it's not really going to help me heal. It's not going to allow me to support my wife or my family. It's a waste of a lot of emotion.''

McCutcheon changed things for U.S. volleyball. His team will tell you that. He changed the culture and direction and expectations. In the end, he helped chart the course to a gold medal.

Unlike the old days, coaches now receive a replica medal. And so you wonder: What will this medal mean to McCutcheon? Will it remind him of his team's victory or of his family's loss?

Again, the two are forever intertwined. Still, McCutcheon said that he would look at the medal and feel "wonderful, wonderful, wonderful" for what his team accomplished.

After all, isn't that the way Todd Bachman would have seen it?

"I can only speculate," McCutcheon said, "but I imagine he would have been — and if you want to say is — extremely proud of what this team accomplished."

Perhaps, just perhaps, Bachman would have been proud of his son-in-law, too.

Volleyball coach McCutcheon's Games bookends: pain, bliss 08/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 3:18pm]
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