Tragedy weighed heavily on U.S. women

Martin Rogers

BEIJING – There are so many stories at every Olympics that time takes on a different meaning.

The events of the early part of the Games are not forgotten but are joined with each passing day by countless new tales of glory, excellence, heartbreak and failure. By the time the Closing Ceremony arrives, Day 1 seems like months earlier.

For the United States women's volleyball team, there is only one tragic event by which these Olympics will be eternally remembered.

When the players and staff look back on Beijing, this 16-day festival will not be signified by their own silver medals, a brave and surprising achievement even without the context of a senseless murder.

What happened to affect this group and the U.S. men's team at the start of the Olympics was real life, surreal and horrific as it was. The attack on the parents of former U.S. national team player Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman McCutcheon at the 13th century Drum Tower on Aug. 9 rocked this squad to its core.

Todd Bachman, who died after being stabbed by a Chinese man who then committed suicide, and his wife Barbara, who was seriously hurt but survived the attack, were pillars of the volleyball community. Wiz McCutcheon is also the wife of U.S. men's coach Hugh McCutcheon, who took leave from the team to be with his family.

"It was the hardest start to a competition that I could ever imagine," middle blocker Jennifer Joines said. "(The Bachmans) came to a lot of events and they loved the sport."

However, the team had no choice but to get back on the court and chase a dream four years in the making. Togetherness helped the group emerge from its tragedy and remain focused on its golden goal.

Yet even when that final prize slipped away Saturday, they were still together.

Sure, there was disappointment following Brazil's four-set victory, but not anguish. As the Brazilians enjoyed the spoils of success and whooped deliriously, the Americans gathered at midcourt, huddled together and raised their arms to the middle.

The Chinese people were hurt by the defeat of their own team at the hands of Brazil in the semifinals. But they were moved by the plight of the Americans and rallied behind them with vocal support.

The pro-American sentiment was also helped by the popularity of their coach, Jenny Lang Ping, a former China standout player who's still a star in her former homeland. Repeatedly, fans cheered for Lang Ping, known as the "Iron Hammer" in her playing days.

However, a flamboyant and powerful Brazilian team made a confident start and took the first set 25-15 before the U.S. responded and won the second by the same margin. The South Americans hit top form once again in the third, taking it 25-13, and the fourth set was a see-saw battle that could have gone either way.

When Heather Bown made two critical blocks to make it 16-15, momentum seemed to be shifting toward the U.S. But Brazil held its serve better in the closing stages, capitalizing on some American nerves to close out the contest 25-21.

Even so, it was the best Olympic finish for the U.S. women since losing to China on home soil in the 1984 Games. It was the best ever result for the Americans in a non-boycotted Olympics.

On the podium, there was barely a dry eye at the end of an emotional road. Thoughts of the Bachman family meant many were unable to contain their emotions.

"We have been through a lot and it all kind of spilled over," said libero player Stacy Sykora. "Our thoughts were with them all."

U.S. players wrote the name "Wiz" on their bodies and received an email from Elisabeth Bachman on the morning of the final.

"We will be sending her some things from here to show her how much we care about the family," said Joines, who shared a room with Bachman on national team duty for three years.

"There will be a few secret things in there," she added. "And our love."