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Killing gives U.S. volleyball players pause

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

BEIJING – The introductions were done, the warm-ups over, the pregame preparation complete. The Venezuelans lined up, and the official held the volleyball, ready to begin play. The crowd, virtually all Chinese, was eager for the start.

The Americans instead huddled, linked arms, bowed their heads and stood in contemplation. Everyone just watched and waited. And waited.

"We knew they couldn't start without us," Ryan Miller said.

A hard rain slapped down on this gray city Sunday, from the ancient Drum Tower near downtown, where U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon's father-in-law had been stabbed to death, to the volleyball venue on the west side, where McCutcheon's team won 3-2 without him.

All over Beijing, Americans tried to come to grips with Sunday's attack, even as more brutal details emerged.

How the knife-wielding attacker surprised Todd Bachman, a Minnesota businessman, while he was touring the 13th-century tourist attraction.

How his wife, Barbara, rushed back to his defense and sustained life-threatening injuries herself (she remains in critical but stable condition after an eight-hour surgery).

How their Chinese tour guide was also severely wounded.

How Bachman's daughter, Elisabeth, a former 2004 U.S. volleyball Olympian and McCutcheon's wife, was spared physical injury but had to watch it all unfold, had to watch her father killed. Then her mother wounded. Then the attacker, Tang Yongming, hanging from the side of Drum Tower for as long as a half hour, according to the London Daily Mail, before falling to his death in an apparent suicide.

Tang, a 47-year-old from an eastern Chinese city, had been unsuccessfully filing grievances for unknown reasons against the Chinese government, according to a Hong Kong human-rights group. Whether that was his motivation isn't known. What is known is that in an instant, what had been a friendly, hospitable city for the American contingent and its families took on a feel of uncertainty.

"Most of the players called their parents," said U.S. women's volleyball coach Lang Ping.

While officials say the Bachmans were not wearing any clothing identifying them as Americans or as members of the Olympic family, picking out a white American in Beijing is not very difficult. While Tang's motivations may never be known, it does little to ease fears, even if everyone kept trying to remind themselves otherwise.

"This could have been New York, Athens, anywhere in the world," said Ron Larson, an assistant coach who took over for McCutcheon on Sunday. "Bad things happen everywhere in the world."

The United States Olympic Committee met with some athletes and warned them about being cautious when going out on the town -- even though Beijing is a safe city for its size, attacks on foreigners are rare, and a midday visit to a crowded tourist spot would seem safe. The Chinese government said it would increase security around such places anyway.

None of which was much solace for USA Volleyball, where Elisabeth Bachman was a popular former player, her parents were devoted fans of both the men's and women's teams and McCutcheon had brought a team here capable of gold.

"We really felt the loss as one of our own," said Tom Hoff, the team captain. "Maybe that's why it hurts so much. It hit so close."

The players described McCutcheon receiving a desperate phone call on Saturday afternoon and then leaving the team's headquarters at Beijing Normal University. He later held a brief conference call with them to deliver the news and provide encouragement to stay focused on what brought them here: playing volleyball.

They aren't sure when, if at all, he will return to the team.

While all acknowledge the best way they can help their coach, his wife and two of the team's biggest fans is to play, that seems a little simple.

"(A) feeling of helplessness," Hoff described it.

They wanted to get something on their jerseys, but didn't have time. In the end, the players decided to do what they could. They scribbled the Bachmans’ initials on their shoes.

Then, despite being creatures of habit and ritual, they decided to break with it. They decided just as the match was to start they would gather and embrace and remember. They'd make everyone wait as long as necessary.

No one was going to start without them.

"We wanted to have a moment of silence for the Bachman family," Hoff said.

After so much had happened so fast, after so many questions and so few answers, after the real world had encroached on the dream of these Olympics, just like everyone else, they just wanted a second to pause.