U.S. Men's Volleyball Ease Tragedy With Gold

The U.S. men's volleyball team wasn't supposed to be contending for a gold medal at the Olympics. But after the father-in-law of coach Hugh McCutcheon was murdered in Beijing just as the games began, the team went on a streak and won the Gold Medal.

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You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News. On the final day of the Olympics, the U.S. men's volleyball team beat top-ranked Brazil for the gold medal. Brazil lost to the Americans in four sets. The U.S. team was coached by Hugh McCutcheon, whose family was the target of a vicious attack at a Beijing historical site early in the games. McCutcheon characterized the volleyball gold medal as bittersweet. NPR's Howard Berkes reports from Beijing.

HOWARD BERKES: No one has suffered a bigger loss at the Olympics than Hugh McCutcheon. His father-in-law was killed and his mother-in-law severely injured in a random attack, but he still coached here at his family's insistence.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

BERKES: Throughout the entire game, McCutcheon paced on the perimeter of the court and huddled with his players during time-outs. But after the final point, a powerful U.S. spike...

(Soundbite of crowd applause)

BERKES: McCutcheon grabbed his head with his hands, then slid them over his face as he walked off the court alone. He described that moment later.

Mr. HUGH MCCUTCHEON (Coach, U.S.A. Men's Volleyball Team): It's a very emotionally demanding couple of weeks, and after we won and that cognition kind of sunk in, I think that filters came down a little bit and I just had to step outside and collect myself and come back.

BERKES: When McCutcheon returned to the court and the players lined up to get their gold medals, he was handed a cell phone with his wife on the line. Elizabeth Bachman played Olympic volleyball herself. She was calling from Minnesota where her mother is recovering.

Mr. MCCUTCHEON: You know, she said it first. She said, you won, you won, you won, and nothing left to say there. And you know, and we're just kind of listening to each other smile on the phone.

BERKES: McCutcheon wanted to make sure reporters didn't forget his players. He had been grooming them since he was hired four years ago. It had been 20 years since an American men's team won a volleyball gold medal. And they just beat an Olympic champion, Brazil, the best team in the world. But McCutcheon couldn't escape the poignancy of the moment. At the post-game news conference, the captain of the Brazil team told the American coach he was sorry about what happened. Life, he said, was more important than volleyball. McCutcheon had his own perspective on winning a gold medal while facing tragedy.

Mr. MCCUTCHEON: It doesn't change it, you know, we can't bring Todd back and we can't vindicate what happened but I can enjoy this and I can mourn Todd's death and, you know, I'll be able to deal with both of those emotions but I just am very happy for the team and for U.S.A. volleyball.

BERKES: Coach Hugh McCutcheon is already on his way back to the United States, to Minnesota, where his wife Elizabeth is caring for her mother and where her father, Todd Bachman, will be buried Friday. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beijing.

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