Men’s volleyball coach McCutcheon knows his players are the real story
This Olympic story is an epic, the kind of real-life movie that captivates you and leaves you choking back tears on your family-room couch.
The story of Hugh and Liz McCutcheon, her parents and the gold-medal-winning United States men’s volleyball team is all that.
How it is told is another issue, and it took Hugh McCutcheon to lead us down the correct path here Sunday. What he eventually said, without directly saying it, was that it deserves to be told minus the Hollywood schmaltz. No violins in the background. This isn’t “Rudy.”
It was what it was. No special effects needed.
McCutcheon spoke about an hour after his team had beaten the No. 1 team in the world, Brazil, in four sets.
That got the U.S. an unexpected and cherished gold medal in a sport in which it had seemed to lose traction about the time Karch Kiraly finally started acting his age. There had been those two Kiraly-led golds in 1984 and 1988, a bronze in Barcelona in ’92, and trips home from the last three Olympics with empty pockets.
In the immediate aftermath of Clayton Stanley’s match-point spike into the hearts of the 2004 champion Brazilians, buried into the dead center of Brazil’s defense, McCutcheon had put his face in his hands and quietly stepped away from the court for a quick minute.
“I let the filters come down a little,” he said.
Then, it was back to his team, to the high-fives and hugs and slaps on the back. Soon there was a medal ceremony and more of the same. After the U.S. team received its gold medals, each player was handed a bouquet of flowers. After four years of working and hoping and trying, they could now stop and smell the roses. Literally.
Next was the parade through the mixed zone, dozens of tape recorders pushing at him, McCutcheon trying to satisfy everybody, his words filtering out in dribs and drabs against the ever-present Olympic theme song and the sounds of 18,000 people departing Beijing’s Capital Gymnasium.
When these Games began, McCutcheon was known in volleyball circles and few places else. Few knew his background as a New Zealand volleyball player, even a beach volleyball touring pro for a short stint. Few knew he graduated from Brigham Young University, coached there, then hooked up with USA Volleyball and worked his way through the ranks until he took over in 2005.
Volleyball people knew him as a tall, friendly, well-spoken man with a habit of running his hands through his hair, even though he had none. His players thought he was capable, visionary, the right man to take them back to the top step on the podium.
Then the world learned about him, in the worst possible circumstances.
On Aug. 9, the day after the opening ceremony here, his father- and mother-in-law, Todd and Barbara Bachman, were visiting a tourist site in Beijing and were attacked and stabbed by a man who then committed suicide. Todd Bachman died and Barbara was seriously hurt, as was their Chinese guide. Their daughter, Hugh’s wife, Elisabeth, was with them and could only watch in horror.
It had nothing to do with the Olympics, and everything.
Suddenly, the world knew McCutcheon, knew his wife’s parents had been brutally attacked, knew his wife was a former U.S. Olympic volleyball player still close to most members of the current team.
McCutcheon left the team temporarily, saw the home front stabilized, saw his mother-in-law taken safely back to a hospital in her home of Minneapolis, vowed to stay as long as needed, and was pushed out the door to return to his team.
“Once I knew my family was squared away,” he said, “and with their consent and encouragement, I came back.”
While he was gone, his team was winning. When he came back, it kept on winning. Routs of China and Japan in pool play were impressive but lost in the avalanche of Michael Phelps and Kobe and gymnasts who had the flexibility of 14-year-olds.
With sorrow in its heart, USA Volleyball kept moving forward.
The women beat Cuba in the semifinals. Cuba had won three of the last four gold medals. Afterward, the U.S. women talked about putting Todd Bachman’s initials on their shoes, about getting encouraging e-mails from the friend and former teammate they called Wiz, from Minneapolis, where she remained with her mother.
The women lost in the gold-medal game. Upon reflection, silver would have been a much-desired color coming into these Games. Then the men beat Russia, ranked above them in the world, in the semis and took out No. 1 Brazil in the final.
The story -- incredible, unimaginable, both horrifying and heartwarming -- had played its way out to the most dramatic of endings. Cue the music. Adversity had been overcome. Heartstrings could be tugged. Find a leading man with the biggest crocodile tears.
And then McCutcheon made his way to the news conference, where he could be heard and seen clearly.
All the questions were variations of attempts to get him to discuss his feelings, emotions. What did he feel on match point? How had he made his decision to come back?
He handled all with patience, class. He understood the size of the story and the desire of the gathered group to tell it.
He also understood that, for three years, day in and day out, a group of athletes had worked nonstop to achieve what they just had, the top of their sport’s Mt. Everest. He didn’t want their chapter left out.
“I would hope the future of this press conference is about volleyball-related discussions,” he said, calmly and evenly, with malice toward none.
In minutes, it was over. He could leave to be with his team, a sad smile on his face, the look of tempered joy.
Leave he did. Nobody cued the music. Nobody rolled the credits.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.