-- The last out was made, and Lisa Fernandez thrust her glove high into the hot, acrid sky. Her teammates tumbled over her in the middle of the diamond, collapsing in a jubilant heap of dirt while trying to build a pyramid to their dominance.
A few feet away, Mike Candrea, the coach of the world's most accomplished softball team, rubbed his wedding ring. He let out a cathartic cry -- until the women he calls his children moved toward the dugout and cried with him. First, came Leah O'Brien-Amico. Then Fernandez. One by one, they embraced the sometimes-gruff, mustachioed man and told him they loved him, and that his wife, Sue, was there with them.
"What Coach has been going through the last few weeks is a reminder of how precious things are," said Fernandez, smudging away tears after she had pitched the United States past Australia, 5-1, in the gold medal game of the Olympic softball tournament Monday evening. "I just prayed to God to help me play the best softball that I can because that was the piece of solace he could have to get him through this time."
Long after a partisan crowd of 5,000 was done cheering and chanting, Fernandez was still crying, next to her coach on a podium in a makeshift tent behind the stadium. They spent little time talking about how conniving and crafty the 33-year-old right-hander had been in leading the United States to its third straight Olympic title. Or how third baseman Crystl Bustos put on a Bondsian display, launching two prodigious home runs to give Fernandez and her teammates all the support they needed.
All they wanted, Fernandez said, was their gold medal performance to serve as a balm for their heavy-hearted coach, whose wife died suddenly of a brain aneurysm on July 18 at age 49.
Sue Candrea was with the team on a Friday night in Wisconsin, waiting at an airport to travel to their final pre-Olympic tuneup. She had just ordered some fast food with the rest of the players when she collapsed in front of them. She was rushed to a hospital, where she lapsed into a coma and died two days later.
The players spent their lone week off this year attending Sue's funeral and comforting their coach. Mike lost his wife and the mother of his two children, the woman who took care of his life so that he could put all his focus into claiming six national titles at the University of Arizona. Fernandez and her teammates lost their surrogate mom, who made sure every player smiled as they passed her on the team bus.
"I've been through tragedies," Candrea said, adding that he and Sue had lost a 2-week-old child early in their marriage of almost 28 years. "But nothing compares to losing your spouse. It still hurts."
Candrea was unsure of whether he would want to return to the game, but three weeks after Sue's death he decided to come back. The game and the women he coached became his sanctuary. In turn, they felt if their grieving coach could muster enough courage to show up, so could they. Soon, the intense man they remembered returned.
Sue, Candrea said, helped him keep the game in context. He recalled the time Arizona had finished second at the College World Series and he was beyond crestfallen. Finally, his wife chided him: "I want you to do me a favor. Walk around to the neighbors and knock on everyone's door and see if they care what happened to you today."
"She could do that, keep things in perspective," he said. "I haven't been dreaming lately, I've been so worried about our team. But last night I had a dream about Sue. She came into a room and said, 'Chill out.' That was it."
Candrea's concerns about his team were misplaced. The United States outscored its opponents 51-1 over nine nearly flawless games. The next-best team, Australia, was outscored 20-1 in its three games against the Americans. Three runners reached third base against the United States during the entire tournament. They drove Aussie ace Tanya Harding from the game in the third inning on Monday.
The United States scored three of its runs in the first. Bustos homered to almost dead-center field, over the 220-foot sign, for a 2-0 lead. Fernandez scored three batters later, moving to third on Kelly Kretschman's single and sliding head-first into home when Aussie catcher Marissa Carpadios mishandled a throw to the plate.
Bustos buried Australia's hopes with a moonshot to open the bottom of the third inning. She turned on Harding's first pitch and belted it high and deep over the left field fence, an estimated 320 feet. The ball landed not in the grassy area several dozen feet beyond the fence, but on a patch of concrete that was once a runway strip at the defunct Helliniko Airport. She thought she may have hit a ball harder in college, but could not remember.
By the time the right-handed batting catcher Stacey Nuveman hit an opposite-field home run over the right field wall in the same inning, the Americans had outscored Australia 20-0 in three games. The lone run the United States gave up in nine games came in the top of the sixth inning. Fernandez gave up only nine hits in four games. She was at least as strong and skillful as she was in Atlanta eight years ago and Sydney four years ago.
After unleashing a 65-mph fastball past Australia's Natalie Titcume in the fourth inning, Fernandez used her next pitch to throw a change-up that clocked 39 mph and seemed to have the internal compass of a directionless cicada as it slowly crossed the plate. Titcume was a full two feet in front of Fernandez's most beguiling delivery of the day.
Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, attended and stayed for the full seven innings, which had to encourage the most ardent softball advocates.
Two years ago, the sport survived possible elimination from the 2008 Beijing Games. Whether that reprieve will last until 2012 was unclear on Monday, but the utter dominance of the United States worries some of the sport's most avid supporters who wonder when, and if, the world will pull even with American softball. And if that dominance might work against the IOC's decision to keep the sport.
"It's hard to imagine being so good at something could be a bad thing," Nuveman said.
In the back of his uniform, Candrea carried a photo card his friend made up. It had Sue's picture on it and the inscription, "Team USA Gold. I can fly higher than an eagle because you are the wind beneath my wings."
"This is going to be a team for the rest of my life that I remember as my kids," Mike Candrea said. "They helped me through this. I look at this team as my courage."
His voice cracking and his eyes welling up again, Candrea said, "It's helped, that's all I can say."
As many in a room full of media relations officials and journalists began crying along with Fernandez, Bustos and Nuveman on the podium, Mike Candrea composed himself and rubbed his wedding ring.