Triumph in Wake of Tragedy

Hugh McCutcheon hugs Reid Priddy after the win, which capped an emotionally draining Olympics for the U.S. coach.
Hugh McCutcheon hugs Reid Priddy after the win, which capped an emotionally draining Olympics for the U.S. coach. (By Quinn Rooney -- Getty Images)
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By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 24 -- He was in that Zen-like state that so few coaches reach when all the winning that can be done is finished and the players have gone off to celebrate. Hugh McCutcheon sat on the team bench in the Capital Gymnasium on Sunday afternoon watching everything and staring at nothing. Gold medals were soon to be hung on the necks of his players on the U.S. men's volleyball team, improbable winners especially given everything that had happened. Sitting beside him were his assistant coaches. A dull roar still dangled in the rafters of the gym but nobody wanted to move.

For 10 minutes they sat there, legs crossed, backs pressed against their seats, eyes looking ahead and they talked. This would have nothing to do with the man holding the knife at the Drum Tower two weeks before and the killing of McCutcheon's father-in-law that shocked the Olympics. The tears from that moment had already been shed. It was simply time to savor this four-set victory over highly favored Brazil in the game that mattered most.

"We were in a very peaceful place," assistant coach John Speraw said.

As much as these were the Olympics about Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, McCutcheon was a thread that ran the length of the Games, starting with the Aug. 9 killing of Todd Bachman and wounding of Bachman's wife Barbara, to McCutcheon's weeklong absence from the team to be with his wife, Elisabeth, to his return last weekend and now a gold medal. He understood this and patiently explained his conflicted feelings of concern for his family and longing for his team to do the seemingly impossible and win a gold medal in a sport the United States has not dominated in 20 years.

"I think if we had won this and he couldn't have been here it would have been very hard for Hugh," Speraw said.

Certainly, McCutcheon was filled with grief for Bachman. But this was also the end of a four-year quest to push the U.S. volleyball program to new places, to believe it could someday again be on the top of the world. He had designed a plan to have the team peak around these Olympics, which it appeared to do, tearing through the European World League all June and July, winning the final in four sets against Serbia just two weeks before the Olympics began. To talk too much about the killing would distract from that pursuit. He could not do that to a team that was finally ready to take the last great leap.

"On the one hand, I mourn the loss of my father-in-law and my heart aches for my family and our loss," he said. "On the other hand, I'm extremely proud and happy for our team . . . those are the two emotions I have. They're a little conflicting, obviously, but I can not change what has happened in either sphere."

Later, as another question about Bachman came, he sighed slightly.

"I hope the future of this press conference will be about volleyball," he said.

His players understood. They never seemed comfortable talking about their coach and Bachman's death other than to say they felt horrible for their coach and hoped he could return at some point in the Olympics. Once he did, their worries disappeared. At least outwardly. Talk became more and more about the matches, about the challenges that still rolled out before them. A few days ago, Elisabeth had e-mailed the players, telling them how important it was for the team to win a gold medal. This made them feel even better.

And on Sunday they played the match of their lives, sprawling across the floor to chase down Brazilian shots. They lost the first set and then ground their way through the next three to seize the victory, 20-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-23.

"I hope people realize that there were points in this game that don't usually happen," outside hitter Reid Priddy said.

Then when the match was over, the final point slamming off a Brazilian player's hands, the U.S. players leapt in the air. They hugged. They laughed. Ryan Miller ran to the stands and pulled down an American flag, holding it aloft.

McCutcheon watched it all in awe. Soon the men would come back onto the court to collect their gold medals, and the coach who brought them there would clap and laugh and point at each man as he accepted the ribbon around his neck.

But at that moment he put his head in his hands and sobbed, later joking about letting a few emotions get "through the filter." Then he walked up a tunnel to compose himself. Someone handed him a phone. It was Elisabeth, a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic women's team. "You won! You won! You won!" she screamed.

Yes, they had.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company