American volleyballers carry on despite heavy hearts
BEIJING -- The test of any team is how it handles adversity, but there are some types of adversity that no team should have to face. Like the kind that befell the U.S. men's volleyball team.
It was at their Saturday morning practice that head coach Hugh McCutcheon got the call that would shatter the moment he visualized for four years, since he took over in February of 2005. McCutcheon's father-in-law, Todd Bachman, father of 2004 U.S. women's Olympic volleyball player Elisabeth Bachman McCutcheon, had been stabbed to death in an apparent random attack by a Chinese man who then threw himself off the majestic Drum Tower, a 13th Century structure the ancient Chinese used for telling time. Barbara Bachman, Elisabeth's mother, endured eight hours of emergency surgery, and woke up 6,000 miles from home, without a husband.
Compared to that, being without a coach seems trivial, but this is the Olympics, and this is, as team captain Tom Hoff put it, "what Hugh dedicated his time and passion to for the last four years."
And so McCutcheon called his team Saturday night, on the eve of their opening match against Venezuela, to remind them of where they were: the Olympic Games. "Just to hear his voice and get leadership from him meant a tremendous amount," Hoff said. "He told us it'll be difficult, but together we'll be stronger."
And together they were stronger, assistant coach John Speraw calming the nerves of assistant coach Ron Larsen, who moved from the sideline to the bench to run the team. Together they were stronger, as tiny confessions passed between tall men.
"I have zero frame of reference in how to deal emotionally with something like this," Rich Lambourne, the team's libero, or defensive specialist, confided to middle blocker Ryan Millar, his college teammate at BYU.
But even without McCutcheon present, this team is following his emotional lead. For the men, like Lambourne, who may have been uncertain what to do, McCutcheon's confirmation that they should focus on the four-year goal that is at their doorstep, gave them a path to follow.
You could see it when they came out against Venezuela, when they took a moment of silence amidst a frothing crowd packed with Venezuela supporters, and in their high energy in the first two sets. The Great Shuffling Wall of David Lee, Reid Priddy and Lloy Ball was blocking everything in sight, and the U.S. took the first two sets 25-18, 25-18. But Venezuela caught on, and the U.S. seemed to tire a bit, as the dropped the next two sets 22-25, and 21-25, before finally putting the match away with a 15-10 final set.
After the game, Larsen wasn't sure whether surging and ebbing adrenaline, after all they'd been through in the last day, accounted for the high of the first two sets, and the low of the next two, but whatever the case, the third-ranked team in the world weathered the comeback, and their nerves.
With McCutcheon's blessing, this team, even with its heavy heart, is firmly focused on volleyball, and will continue on course as a medal contender.