Americans capture men's volleyball gold

Monday, August 25, 2008

BEIJING -- When it was all over, Hugh McCutcheon didn't have to tell his wife that his U.S. men's volleyball team had beaten the odds -- and overcome tragedy -- to win the Olympic gold medal.

"She said it first," the coach recalled. "She said, 'You won, you won, you won!' Nothing else to say there, just listening to each other smile on the phone."

The men's team claimed the gold Sunday with a 3-1 victory over defending champion Brazil. The victory capped a stunning run by the U.S. team over the two weeks after Elisabeth McCutcheon's father was stabbed to death in Beijing.

McCutcheon missed the first three matches after Todd Bachman's death, but coached by McCutcheon's assistant, Ron Larsen, the team won all three. Then Elisabeth -- a former volleyball Olympian herself, known as "Wiz" -- told her husband that it was time to go back to work, while she went home.

Over the course of the games, the underdog Americans were undefeated. On Sunday, they beat the Brazilians 20-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-23 to earn their third Olympic gold medal in the sport, matching the record set by the Russians. Top-ranked Brazil, a two-time gold medalist, was left with the silver medal. Russia won the bronze earlier in the day with a three-game victory over Italy.

Usually, the Olympic focus is on the athletes. But the tragedy endured by McCutcheon was an integral part of his team's story.

Bachman was killed while sightseeing at the 13th-century Drum Tower in Beijing the day after opening ceremonies. Bachman's wife, Barbara, was wounded badly, though she survived; the assailant jumped to his death from the tower.

The team responded, playing for the coach, for Wiz and for the Bachmans, who were avid volleyball fans.

"The best thing they could do was play great volleyball. They can't control what had happened and probably are going to try to comprehend the magnitude of that event later, but what we can do is try to play the best we can," McCutcheon said. "I thought that was a real good way for them to deal with it. I'm very proud of their approach and their maturity."

The gold medal was secured when Clayton Stanley's spike sailed toward Brazilian star Giba, who popped the ball out of bounds. Giba crouched on the floor in disbelief, and the U.S. team rushed on the court to embrace.

McCutcheon hugged his assistants. Then he buried his face in his hands, and left the court.

"It dawned on me that we'd just won the thing and I grabbed my staff. They've been so instrumental in our success, obviously for the first three matches of this tournament they were without me and they did a wonderful job," he said. "Then after I shook the coaches' hands, it was just a little too much."

When McCutcheon finally returned to his still-celebrating players, he hugged veteran Lloy Ball. McCutcheon raised his hands in victory as he watched the medal ceremony.

The Americans won gold in 1984 and 1988 before taking the bronze in Barcelona. They finished fourth in Athens in 2004.

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