On court and off, the U.S. rallies

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2008 - 12:52 AM

Without their coach and battling, successfully, to hold off Venezuela, the U.S. players had the Bachman family on their minds.

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BEIJING - Athletes are uniquely equipped to deal with tragedy. Most of them spend their lives inviting pain, voluntarily testing their resolve, summoning reserves of strength, shaking off losses and mistakes, and vowing to move on.

So it went for American volleyball players this weekend.

Saturday, they learned that the men's coach's in-laws, Todd and Barbara Bachman of Lakeville, had been attacked by a man with a knife. Todd, the president and CEO of Bachman's, was killed; Barbara was upgraded to stable condition after eight hours of surgery. The attack occurred with coach Hugh McCutcheon's wife, Elisabeth Bachman McCutcheon, the former Lakeville and Olympic volleyball player, nearby.

Sunday, having digested those horrific facts, the men played their first match of the Olympics, nearly blowing a 2-sets-to-none lead over Venezuela before winning in five sets.

There were few overt signs of mourning in the Capital Gymnasium, but the players admitted it was difficult not to dwell on McCutcheon's absence. They wrote the Bachmans' initials on their shoes, and they gathered for a team hug and moment of silence just before the match started.

"We knew they wouldn't start without us,'' team captain Tom Hoff said.

McCutcheon did, indeed, allow the tournament to start without him. He was replaced by assistant coach Ron Larson, who admitted that he hardly enjoyed his moment in the spotlight. "I'd rather be sitting on the bench telling him what I think we should be doing and him telling me, 'I don't think so,' rather than sitting where I am now," Larson said.

For U.S. player Lloy Ball, he "talked with my wife for an hour because she had not left the States to come here, and we talked about whether she should come. She's a lot stronger than I am, so she got on the plane.

"You have to live your life. You can't live your life in fear or anger. You just send your prayers to the families and try to do what you set out to do and that's win the gold medal.''

It was an opponent, Venezeulan libero Joel Silva, who offered the most poignant words of the day: "You're supposed to be at a party,'' he said. "And you're at a funeral.''

The men's team is missing its coach indefinitely; the women's team may be even more emotional about the attack. Many of the women's indoor players cried after their match on Saturday night.

Elisabeth, known as "Wiz,'' played on the 2004 Olympic team and traveled to Beijing with her parents to cheer on her friends. The Bachmans were known as passionate supporters of American volleyball.

Sunday morning, Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, the premier beach volleyball team in the world, won their first match of the Olympics. Walsh was friends with Elisabeth and spoke eloquently of her sense of loss.

"We all love Wiz so much,'' Walsh said. "She's an amazing woman from an amazing family, and it's just the worst possible thing imaginable. We're saying prayers for that family. All of our hearts are heavy.

"But I think we also have a new inspiration and a perspective. Life is short. Enjoy it. Love the people you're with.

"The Bachmans absolutely did that so well. They're such a loving family. It's so sad. It's overwhelming inside.''

Walsh said she wanted to speak to Nicole Branagh, the former Gophers star who played in her first Olympic beach volleyball match on Saturday, about the attack but that Branagh remained disconsolate. Walsh and Elisabeth had played together and against each other since they were 13.

"She's always been just a great girl,'' Walsh said. "Her parents did a great job raising her. She has, I think, a tough road ahead of her, but she has a lot of support and she has a great relationship with her husband.

"She's a tough girl. They'll come through.''

That's the way elite athletes look at life and death.


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