Grieving Men’s Volleyball Team Stops Venezuela
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BEIJING — The volleyball players huddled, had a moment of silence, and then set out on their mission — to do what little they could to ease the pain of their grieving coach and his shattered family.
Coach Hugh McCutcheon and his wife, a 2004 volleyball Olympian, Elisabeth “Wiz” Bachman, would miss this game. They spent the day at Beijing hospital; a day before, her father was killed and her mother critically injured by a suicidal, knife-wielding attacker at a Beijing landmark.
And so, today, the American men’s team was determined to play their best — for their coach and for his in-laws, both of them devoted fans. Ultimately, despite a mid-match letdown, the Americans persevered in an opening-round match, defeating Venezuela 3-2.
“Hearing the news was tragic, stunning — words can’t describe it,” the team captain, Tom Hoff, said. “‘How can I help?’ That’s all we were thinking. … We talked about how the best thing we could do was try to play volleyball.”
The government tightened security today around Beijing’s scenic spots in response to the attack on Todd and Barbara Bachman of Lakeville, Minn., and a Chinese tour guide. The site of the stabbings — the 13th-century Drum Tower — was closed to tourists, a note at the ticket booth asking for visitors’ understanding. Someone had left a bouquet of yellow and white lilies and chrysanthemums at the entrance, flowers of mourning in China.
The assailant, 47-year-old Tang Yongming, leapt to his death from the tower. According to Xinhua news service, police said Tang acted out of despair over two failed marriages, and a 21-year-old son who had been charged with fraud.
The attack occurred at midday yesterday. The team learned of it soon after, during practice, when McCutcheon was summoned to the phone. Details were slow to emerge. “It was pretty silent for a while,” said veteran setter Lloy Ball.
By mid-afternoon, the players knew that Todd Bachman was dead and his wife badly hurt. But late that night, at the Olympic Village, they were bolstered by a conference call with McCutcheon, a tough-minded New Zealander who’s been their coach for the past four years as the team rose to third in the world rankings.
“It meant a tremendous amount to myself and the guys when we heard from him,” Hoff said. “He talked about trying to move on. … He just told us, it will be difficult, but together we’ll be much stronger.”
Just before the match, the players briefly linked arms and bowed their heads.
“We wanted to have a moment of silence where we could gather our thoughts before starting this journey,” Hoff said. “It was a moment of silence to honor the Bachman family.”
The Americans stormed to easy victories in the first two games, before Venezuela rallied. Eventually, they prevailed 25-18, 25-18, 22-25, 21-25, 15-10.
McCutcheon’s top assistant since 2005, Ron Larsen, said he felt a little nervous about taking command. Still, he seemed outwardly calm during the seesaw match. No yelling, no big gestures — he watched pensively and often turned to his fellow assistants for input.
“It’s always been a collaborative effort here,” he said.
There were relatively few Americans in a crowd which lent noisy support to underdog Venezuela during its comeback. Given the limited local reporting about the attack, many of the Chinese fans were likely unaware of the American team’s emotional state.
For the American coaches and players alike, there seemed to be a conscious effort not to let the tragedy throw their shared aspirations off track.
“The one thing we’ve always talked about is that this is about a team — it’s not about individual people,” Larsen said. “The thing that came across as Hugh was talking to us is, ‘You know what, I’ve got this happening right now, but we came here with a goal in mind and we’ve invested all this time in it, and we need to go out there and try to complete what we started.'”
That doesn’t necessarily mandate a gold medal, Larsen said. “It means going out there and playing better every match than we did the previous match.”
McCutcheon’s wife was a volleyball star at UCLA and a member of the American team that competed in the Athens Olympics in 2004. Her parents often watched her matches and were known by many of the current American national team members.
“We really felt the loss as one of our own,” Hoff said. “Maybe that’s why it hurt so much — it just felt so close.”
Larsen expressed hope that the team would feel no burden in playing to honor the Bachmans.
“The best way we can honor them at this juncture … is to go out and compete every day and play hard every day, and enjoy and love the game of volleyball — and it is a game,” he said. “We should be playing it and enjoying it and loving it as they would.”
Whether McCutcheon will return to his coaching duties during the Olympics remains to be seen; his players want him to follow his heart and feel no obligations to them.
“We’re totally aware that we may see him and we may not,” Hoff said. “That’s completely all right with us. He has other priorities.”
To a man, players and coaches spoke of McCutcheon’s energy and passion.
“He’s sorely missed,” Larsen said at a post-match news conference. “I’d much rather be sitting on the bench, telling him what I think he should be doing. … rather than where I am now.”