Minus Its Leader, A Team Plays On
Monday, August 11, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 10 -- He was never one for distractions, endlessly preaching to his players the virtue of a mind that can overcome any ordeal. "There are no small plays when we are doing it," U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon would forever tell his players. Hardly words of great insight but a window into the soul of a man who disdains the kind of clutter that pulls an athlete down.
Sunday afternoon at Capital Indoor Stadium came a test of his teachings. Not far away, McCutcheon's in-laws had been attacked a day earlier by a lone assailant at the historic Drum Tower. His father-in-law was killed, his mother-in-law critically injured. His wife witnessed the attack. So the U.S. men's volleyball team opened play without the coach who taught them how to fight through such ordeals.
Perhaps as a testament to his teachings, his players walked onto the floor devoid of emotion. They did not partake in a melodramatic pantomime of despair. They did not point to the sky or write his name on their shoes. Rather they gathered in a small circle for the briefest of moments, then set to the task of battling through a surprisingly difficult five-set preliminary round victory over Venezuela.
"I really, truly believe you work so hard and have come so far that nothing is going to get you off of your preparation," outside hitter Gabe Gardner said. "So you can't let any curveball thrown your way become a distraction. If you do you will regret it. Do you really want to get derailed about anything?"
He did not mean to sound callous. None of them did. But they trained for four years with McCutcheon, listening to his lectures filled with words like "focus"; they couldn't let his absence deflate them. They had spoken to him the previous night on the telephone, expressed their condolences and then put everything that happened at the Drum Tower out of their minds.
While McCutcheon's father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was a huge supporter of the entire national volleyball program, he spent most of his time around the women's team, for which his daughter Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman played for several years. The men's players are friendly with Wiz Bachman, knowing her as a former player and as their coach's wife, but most had met her parents only briefly.
When asked what kind of person Bachman's father was, the American coaches and players stuttered and fumbled, not wanting to be disrespectful but unsure what to say about someone they didn't really know.
Their coach, however, they could talk about. And the portrayal consistently presented was one of a man who would not want his players to dwell on his absence. They said they are prepared for the very real possibility that he might not coach at all during the Olympics, given the horror of what happened to his wife's family. They said they understand and will manage.
"Hugh is one of the strongest, most resilient people I know," said Rob Larsen, the assistant coach who is replacing McCutcheon. "He's dealing with things as it goes along. He's there for Elisabeth."
McCutcheon had talked about this first game of the Olympics for years, always pointing to the initial match, an imaginary red circle on the calendar, as something the team could concentrate on as motivation. Then it came and for two sets against lowly Venezuela, the Americans looked unstoppable, pounding the ball past Venezuelan players who looked helpless to stop the onslaught. Then as quickly as the U.S. team built a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five-sets match, it lost the next two, setting up a fifth set it did not want to play.
And yet the U.S. team pulled out the match, winning the final two points.
Afterward, the players talked about how much volleyball is a game of ebbs and flows and that it is very difficult to have a lead, let someone else gain momentum and then desperately come back in a final set.
"Obviously, to hear [McCutcheon's] voice and get leadership from him -- he's always the guy steering and leading our squad -- helped," team captain Tom Hoff said. "I told the guys: 'This is what he's dedicated his life to. He told us it will be difficult but this will make us much stronger.' "