United States' volleyball teams persevere in the wake of tragedy
BEIJING -- We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Beijing Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.
We come to the Olympics to see stunning athletic performances, but the performance of the U.S. men's and women's volleyball teams in the wake of a random and senseless tragedy in Beijing goes beyond any mere clocking on a track, gymnastics routine or swim relay for what it said about the athletes not only as performers in sport, but as human beings.
The gold and silver medals won by the men's and women's teams, respectively, speaks to the character and maturity of athletes who, when faced with the worst sort of tragedy, dug down and found a way to take what they loved about their athletic lives and made it mean something for their lives outside sport. USA Volleyball representatives talk about their organization being a family, and the group conducted itself as one during what must have been an excruciating time after a random attack at the Drum Tower that took the life of men's head coach Hugh McCutcheon's father-in-law, Todd Bachman, and seriously wounded his mother-in-law, Barbara. Their daughter Elisabeth played on the U.S. women's team in Athens; eight of her teammates from that team were playing in Beijing as well. The players and families couldn't be closer; the tragedy affected everyone on both teams.
Hours after the attack, the women won their first match of the Olympics. In the mixed zone they spoke lovingly of the Bachman family, often through tears. In a world in which so many athletes blow off the media, the women talked openly, shared their feelings, and then regrouped and got to work. The silver medal they won was the best showing by their team in the Olympics since 1984. The men were similarly graceful and dignified; their gold medal, in a fantastically-played final against Brazil on the last day of the Games, was their best showing since their double golds in 1984 and 1988.
Nobody playing USA Volleyball is named Phelps, Bolt, Liukin or Johnson, and professional indoor volleyball is not a well-covered sport in the United States. So it will most likely go down in history as a footnote to the eight golds in the pool and the 100-200 world record double and the one-two punch of the American women gymnasts in the all-around.
But it will stay with me forever. Sue Woodstra, the assistant to women's head coach "Jenny" Lang Ping, told me that for her, the murder brought home that "you better be doing what you love in life." Maybe that's what came through most for me as I watched the volleyball tournament unfold. These athletes toil in our country without a professional league to support them, having to go abroad to earn a solid living in overseas leagues. Many of them were representing the U.S. for their third or fourth Olympics. They love the sport. When the worst thing that could possibly happen to them happened on the eve of the biggest event of their sporting careers, they showed through their performances that they loved what they were doing in life, and would honor the Bachmans -- who loved supporting them as they did it -- by playing their hearts out.
That's a testament to something much bigger than any mere medal could ever express.