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RICH LAMBOURNE, the U.S. volleyball team's libero, or defensive specialist, kept looking to the sideline during the U.S.-Venezuela match on Sunday, but his coach wasn't there. Every time Lambourne saw assistant Ron Larsen sitting where Hugh McCutcheon should have been, he thought about McCutcheon's family, a family made heartbreakingly smaller the day before.
McCutcheon's father-in-law, Todd Bachman, 62, died from wounds suffered in a knife attack last Saturday afternoon at Beijing's Drum Tower, a majestic 13th-century edifice used by medieval Chinese to tell time. In what appeared to have been a random act, a 47-year-old unemployed factory worker named Tang Yongming stabbed Bachman and his wife, Barbara, in front of their daughter, Elisabeth, a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic volleyball team. Tang also stabbed the Bachmans' Chinese tour guide before jumping 130 feet to his death.
Barbara Bachman endured eight hours of emergency surgery and woke up 6,000 miles from her Minnesota home without a husband. Her daughter no longer had a father. And the New Zealand--born McCutcheon, 38, lost not only his father-in-law but also the experience he had been dangling before his players since he took over as their coach in February 2005: the excitement of playing their first point at the 2008 Olympics.
McCutcheon had used that goal to keep the guys going through an injury-marred 2006 season in which their world ranking dropped from fifth to eighth. As they came dangerously close to not qualifying for the 12-team field, McCutcheon kept telling them, "There are no small plays." Finally, at the NORCECA qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico last January, they earned their tickets to China.
McCutcheon's Olympic moment vanished, however, in a phone call he received from his wife during the team's Saturday afternoon practice. The news of Bachman's murder broke just hours before the U.S. women's volleyball team's first game. The U.S. defeated Japan, but what should have been a triumphant press conference was instead a joyless gathering of athletes, crestfallen sisters of Wiz, as they call Elisabeth Bachman McCutcheon.
"Liz fought in the 2004 Olympics with us," said libero Stacy Sykora. "She's probably the nicest person in the entire world, her and her family." The Bachmans ran a 123-year-old home-and-garden business based in Minneapolis. Todd and Barbara loved volleyball and followed their daughter around the world, hardly ever missing one of her games. It was at this thought that Sykora's composure melted into tears. "Her family is like our family," she said, "because they traveled with us."
It wasn't clear whether McCutcheon would coach his team in Beijing. He did make a conference call to his players at the Olympic Village on Saturday night, telling them to keep their focus on the final steps of their four-year march. "Just to hear his voice and get leadership from him meant a tremendous amount," said captain Tom Hoff. "He told us it'll be difficult, but together we'll be stronger."
The players steeled themselves. They wrote the Bachmans' initials on the backs of their shoes. On Sunday they huddled before the game—"We wanted a moment of silence when we could gather our thoughts and honor the Bachman family," said Hoff—while a crowd packed with Venezuela supporters surged around them.
Larsen took over the bench. "I feel a little nervous," he confided to assistant coach John Speraw, who replied, "Hey, that's good. We always tell the guys that nerves mean they care, and they'll have that extra boost of energy."
And so the Games went on. The Games have always gone on, through the hostage tragedy in Munich, through the bombing in Atlanta, through all the events that bring the word Games into greater relief. The U.S. volleyball team dispatched Venezuela in five sets. "The focus of this team has always been, 'We're going to play better today than yesterday,'" Larsen said. For the American players and coaches, today and the next day could only be better.