It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.
Athletes are told that from their earliest days of competition. Implied in the phrase, however, and what is often overlooked, is the importance of the journey. In the case of USA Volleyball, the indoor men’s and women’s teams understand that importance a little better than the rest of us.
Thousands of athletes came to the Olympic Games in Beijing with expectations as diverse as the Olympic landscape itself. Fans, too, arrived in Beijing from all over the world to immerse themselves in culture and sports. Three of those fans were Todd, Barbara and Elisabeth Bachman. Their reason for being there, beyond anything else they intended to do in China, was personal: U.S. men’s volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon is Todd and Barbara’s son-in-law, married to their daughter, Elisabeth, a former volleyball Olympian herself on the 2004 U.S. women’s team. It’s not a stretch to imagine the Bachman’s intended to be in Capital Gymnasium for every American match, both men’s and women’s.
Only 12 hours after the opening ceremony, Todd was fatally stabbed at Beijing’s Drum Tower. Barbara was seriously injured as well, but is now back home in the U.S. recovering.
When news of the attack surfaced, any thoughts of volleyball seemed insignificant. Still, sooner or later the questions would be asked: How would this affect both teams and would McCutcheon have any desire to continue coaching after attending to his family? And how would women’s coach “Jenny” Lang Ping keep her players, all friends with Elisabeth, focused?
What unfolded over the next two weeks was nothing short of remarkable.
Ranked fourth in the world, the women played brilliantly behind three-time Olympian Logan Tom making it to the gold medal match only to be defeated by the world’s top-ranked team, Brazil. But make no mistake: These women did not “settle” for silver. They won silver. The most compelling match was unquestionably their utter destruction of powerful Cuba in the semifinals, especially when you factor in that Cuba beat the U.S. in straight sets back on the second day of pool-play.
For the men, their inspired run through the tournament ending with the gold medal match seemed even more improbable than the women. Outside of the players and McCutcheon, no one gave this team the least bit of consideration for a medal unless the discussion was bronze.
And beyond the reach of USA Volleyball and their core of fans, who in this country prior to the Olympics could name or recognize even one player on either the men’s or women’s team? Apparently, and unfortunately, NBC thought the same thing.
Volleyball has yet to catch fire in the U.S., at least with respect to media coverage. You’ll never see volleyball as the lead story on ESPN’s SportsCenter. It’s doubtful local sportscasts even mention it unless one of the players is from their town or they’re covering the local high school in the state finals. With the men’s and women’s matches from Beijing shown primarily in late-night – really late night – it makes you wonder if anyone at NBC was paying attention to what was going on.
Even the most casual fan could see something special in red, white and blue was developing in Capital Gymnasium in the wake of a horrible tragedy.
When you consider the emotional backdrop behind the actual matches and throwing in for good measure the savage power, blazing speed and spectacular skill it takes to compete at this sport’s highest level, you’d have thought NBC would have salivated to show the U.S. volleyball teams in primetime as much as possible.
Watching someone like Jamaica’s Usain Bolt do unheard-of things on the track was memorable. But these were athletes, our athletes, competing on the world’s biggest stage while walking hand-in-hand with tragedy and managing to do it all with class, grace and immense inner strength.
You want role models? You could do a lot worse than looking up to these young men and women.
In the semifinals, the men defeated Russia 3-2 in what was one of the greatest sports contests I’ve ever witnessed. Unlike playing any other country in virtually any sport, the stakes are raised exponentially when the opponent is Russia. It’s the difference between Celtics-Lakers and Pistons-Spurs: Great talent across the board, but it’s the shared, and extensive, history between Boston and Los Angeles that draws us in. USA vs. Russia is no different.
After Russia, the U.S. then did the unthinkable by beating the great Brazilian team 3-1 to win the gold medal.
The camera quickly cut to Hugh McCutcheon. Holding his head in his hands, he walked slowly off the court getting away from everyone for a few moments as he tried to collect his thoughts. Seeing him, alone, underneath the stands with chants of “USA-USA” echoing through the arena, the avalanche of emotions he had to be experiencing was the most compelling singular moment for me watching these Olympics.
Beijing gave us an endless array of benchmark moments spanning the spectacular to the incomprehensible. We saw the unprecedented greatness of Michael Phelps, the elegance of Nastia Liukin and the disgraceful performance of Cuban taekwondo specialist Angel Matos kicking a referee in the face.
And we saw the best that sports can be, well beyond the actual competition, in the form of the United States men’s and women’s volleyball teams.
What the men and women accomplished went far beyond their respective gold and silver medals. The most glaring issue virtually any team in any sport at any level ever has to face is an injury to a key player. It’s usually described as “devastating.”
In that context, the word no longer seems appropriate.
Devastating is what these two teams, in particular Hugh McCutcheon, just lived through. No one will ever be able to fully measure what effect the death of Todd Bachman had on them.
But watching them in match after match, the great athletic skill the U.S. men’s and women’s volleyball players exhibited in Beijing – and that skill was abundant – was far surpassed by the depth of character they so clearly possess.
This post was published by USA Volleyball during the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.