Steve Kelley: At the Olympics
Steve Kelley, a Seattle Times sports columnist for 25 years, is covering his eighth Olympics. He'll share news and tidbits as the Beijing Games unfold.
August 10, 2008 5:29 PM
Posted by Steve Kelley
Early Saturday afternoon, in the middle of his volleyball team's final practice before the start of their Olympic tournament, men's coach Hugh McCutcheon was told he had a phone call.
"We saw him leave practice, but didn't think it was a big deal," said USA player Lloy Ball. "That stuff happens all the time."
But McCutcheon didn't come back. And he may not return for the rest of these Olympics.
After practice, the team was told the shattering news that McCutcheon's in-laws had been stabbed.
His father-in-law Todd Bachman was dead. And mother-in-law Barbara was in critical condition. Barbara Bachman underwent eight hours of surgery Sunday and was listed in critical, but stable condition.
The players only were given the facts at the time and those facts were vague.
Imagine their horror.
Many of them had family arriving in Beijing on Sunday. Ball's wife Sarah and two children were coming. Was some terrorist group targeting Americans? Were they, their families, all Americans in Beijing, in jeopardy?
And then imagine their anguish.
The Bachmans weren't just part of their coach's family, they were the first family of volleyball.
"They are always around," said team captain Thomas Hoff
Their daughter Elisabeth played in the 2004 Athens Games. The Bachmans traveled to volleyball games, both men's and women's and brought gifts and food to the players.
"Hearing the news was tragic, stunning, words can't describe it," Hoff said. "All you can do is think about what the team could do to help. We knew the best thing we could do was to come out here and try to play volleyball."
Some three hours after the stabbings, the players were told that the acts appeared to be the random. The work of a madman.
They were assured this isn't the harbinger of another Munich. There was no evidence that Americans were being targeted.
It is impossible to make sense out of the senseless, to find meaning in something so meaningless, to find inspiration in such cruelty.
So the American volleyball team did the only thing it could do, it played a game. The players tried losing themselves inside the sport they love, their coach loves and the Bachmans have loved.
"I told the guys to go out and enjoy the game of volleyball," interim coach Ron Larsen said. "It is a game and we should love playing it."
Less than 24 hours after learning of Bachman's death, they were on the court, in front of the world, pursing a medal that still was desperately important, but this game, at least, had lost much of its Olympic magic.
"At times they played like they were a little bit sad," Venezuela's Joel Silva said.
Playing in spurts, the United States won a match it was supposed to win, but didn't play the way it had hoped, beating less-talented Venezuela, 25-18, 25-18, 22-25, 21-25, 15-10.
"The last 24 hours have been so hard. Obviously we're playing volleyball and that doesn't compare to the loss that happened to our team and to our whole family," Hoff said. "We all came here to do this and it's very hard to continue on, but our first and foremost thoughts and prayers are with their family."
McCutcheon, a compassionate, hard-boiled coach from New Zealand, called the team on Saturday night and tried as best he could to explain the situation. He said he wouldn't coach them in their opener and didn't know if, or when, he would return.
Suddenly, a team that came to China with so much to win, felt like it was losing everything. Its coach, part of its family, all of the momentum gained from the past four years.
But, still their coach, McCutcheon also offered his guidance.
"To hear his voice and get the leadership from the guy who has been leading our squad for the last four years, meant a tremendous amount to the guys," Hoff said. "He told us that we had to try and move on in our own way.
"This (Olympics) is what he's been building for. This is what he's expended so much passion and energy on. He told us it would be difficult, but together, we could be much stronger. We are completely cognizant of the situation that is going on and we are totally aware that we may see him and we may not."
After the pre-match introductions, the U.S. players made Olympic officials wait to start the match as they gathered in a circle on their side of the net.
They needed this moment together to try to put everything in some kind of perspective before the matches began. They bowed their heads and observed a moment of silence for their late friend and his grieving family.
"It was very difficult in an arena like this and with Olympic protocol and all, but we knew one thing, they weren't going to start the match without us," Hoff said. "We wanted a moment together, where we could gather our thoughts.
"We wanted a moment of silence to honor the Bachman family and Hugh's family. It's tough to change (protocol), but we wanted to do it."
The grieving and the moments of silence will continue through this tournament. The U.S. volleyball team lost part of its family Saturday, in a murder that can't be explained.
And the only option left now for the players, is honor their friends by playing these games with the same kind of passion and affection that the Bachman family has always shown them.
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