Brazil spoils gold-medal hopes of U.S. women’s volleyball

LONDON — Perfect endings are for novels. Not so much for real life, or for volleyball teams and coaches.

These London Olympics were to be the completion of the Hugh McCutcheon sweep, both as kind of payback for past Olympic-related indignities and as a success story with a gender twist. McCutcheon, a tall New Zealander with no hair, lots of personality and an irresistible back story, wasn’t promoting any of that.

He was coach of the men’s U.S. Olympic volleyball team that won the gold medal four years ago in Beijing. Now, in London, he was the coach of the No. 1-ranked U.S. women’s volleyball team. Had the storytellers had their way, his women’s team would have won gloriously in the gold medal game Saturday night in a creaky old arena named Earl’s Court, and the gushing and hyperbole would have rolled out.

PHOTOS: 2012 London Olympics | Day 15

But Brazil beat the United States handily, 11-25, 25-17, 25-20, 25-17, and the story-in-waiting still is. Cinderella never got her slipper back on. No handsome prince appeared. After the first set, the match became a barrage of winning spikes by Brazil, and a never-ending parade of dives to the floor to dig out Team USA’s best efforts.

“They were the first team to take us out of our rhythm, the first team we played where we did not have control,” said veteran Lindsey Berg, the captain and main artery of a team that had not lost a match all summer.

McCutcheon, who ranks high on the all-time list of Olympic coaches who preach and practice poise and perspective at all times, said simply, “We’re disappointed with the result, but we’re not disappointed with the effort.”

The storytellers badly wanted to be able to twin a McCutcheon gold-medal coaching job — one for the men and one for the women — with the now well-known story of how his wife’s father had been knifed to death and mother had been severely injured in Beijing just days before the start of the 2008 Games by a mentally ill man who then jumped to his death.

By the time McCutcheon had returned to the team and coached them to the gold medal, he wanted the story to be his team, not his personal misery. But stories cannot easily evade storytellers. McCutcheon knew that and tried mightily to deflect attention from him and onto his team.

The silver lining of Saturday night’s silver medal may have been that he wasn’t asked once to resurrect family sorrow, to comment on it, to characterize his current feelings about it. The gold medal would have, unavoidably, brought back the violins one more time.

Instead, the pain was about volleyball, about losing out in the ultimate game for the second straight Olympics to Brazil, about the U.S. volleyball women still being without a gold medal in the Olympics. It was also about the reality that, in four years, the Brazilians will be going after their third straight gold medal — in Rio de Janeiro. Yup, a Brazilian home game.

Saturday’s final spike into the U.S. heart was by Brazil’s Fernanda Rodrigues, whose bullet on match point left her with 12 successful spikes on the night. And she was only third best on her team, after Jaqueline Carvalho’s 18 and Sheilla Castro’s 15.

The Brazilian’s celebration was as unbridled as their style of play.

They marched to the center of the arena for the medal ceremony and never stopped dancing and jiggling. While the U.S. team, still obviously in mourning, stood quietly on one side and the Japanese bronze medalists did the same on the other, the yellow-clad Brazilians wiggled and giggled and posed and preened. They were a dozen post-race Usain Bolts.

Some took it as an affront, as disrespectful. Not the U.S. women, who have seen it before.

“They’re just hotblooded Latins,” said Logan Tom, another U.S. veteran who, like Berg, is likely to retire from international volleyball now.

Berg sloughed it off too.

“I respect their happiness,” she said, showing little of her own.

McCutcheon will return to Southern California, where he has recently sold his home — the team trained in Anaheim — and in a few weeks head to the next stage of his life as coach of the University of Minnesota’s women’s volleyball team.

That’s his new story, and he says it suits him just fine.