BEIJING -- The U.S. women's volleyball team ended its improbable run to the gold-medal match on Saturday. It's a story that reaches far beyond the boundaries of a volleyball court, for it was done in the shadow of a senseless tragedy.
The end of the sports story came on Saturday night as Brazil spiked and blocked and dug their way to the Olympic gold medal over the U.S., 25-15, 18-25, 25-13, 25-21. But to the U.S. women, silver was more than enough.
The tears on the medal stand were not unhappy ones. This was the team's first Olympic medal in 16 years and best finish since 1984, when the U.S. took silver. The team that beat them, of course, was China, whose star outside hitter "Jenny" Lang Ping was now the U.S. women's coach. As the medals were put around their necks, there were broad smiles from a team that had just taken a set off Brazil -- the only set the gold medalists lost the entire tournament.
Former U.S. Olympian Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman McCutcheon was home in Minnesota. She told her team via e-mail, "when I take time to watch your matches, it makes me happy." Wiz was nursing her mother Barbara back to health after a senseless attack by a knife-wielding man in Beijing left her father, Todd, dead and Barbara critically wounded. But in the midst of her grief, she found time to watch volleyball matches, because it made her happy.
So the team kept on giving her matches to watch.
It would be simplistic to suggest that the murder of Todd Bachman in Beijing on Aug. 9 somehow propelled the U.S. volleyball teams to the medal stand. Sport is just a game. The Bachman murder was a tragedy, an apparently random attack by a mentally ill man reeling over his own family's problems. Sport pales in comparison to such things.
But sport showed the character of this team after that horrible day. The women played their first pool match against Japan just hours after team officials delivered the news of Bachman's death to them. "We did the best we could," said U.S. assistant coach Sue Woodstra -- incidentally, a member of that 1984 silver-medal U.S. team. "It's nothing you ever, ever could plan for as a coach." The team won the match and walked off the court in tears. Reporters in the mixed zone listened to the first wave of stories about the Bachman family and their deep support of the USA teams.
The U.S. women hiccupped against Cuba two days later, losing in three sets. But then, somehow, they regrouped and didn't lose another match until Saturday's gold-medal final against Brazil, the No. 1 team in the world. Credit "Jenny" Lang Ping for that one. The coach understands how to reach her athletes perhaps better than anyone in the game. Even Yao Ming dials her up from time to time to consult with her on how to deal with difficult personnel issues for his own teams.
"Jenny is a psychologist," stresses USA Volleyball president Al Monaco.
And therein lies another part of this story -- the return of Chinese volleyball legend Lang Ping to her native Beijing. She told SI.com before the United States' preliminary round win against China that she needed a GPS to get around her own hometown, so complete has been the transformation of her city since she was a national team star. She came to Beijing dedicated to the task of winning a medal, giving few interviews and protecting herself and her athletes from distractions. On the night of the Bachman murder, she was solemn. Quietly, and very much away from the media, she took care of her players as they processed their grief.
Before each match, she would give a talk to the team. Woodstra was transfixed. "She would just lay it out there like, 'This is what we need to do, this is want we want to do, and this is how we're going to do it.'" The team responded, dedicating their Olympic experience to Wiz. Setter Lindsey Berg wrote W-I-Z on the athletic tape around her fingers; Jennifer Joines held up the inside of her right wrist one night to reveal "Wiz" written in red ink.
Lang Ping gave them room to remember Wiz and her family as part of their Olympic experience. And she let them bond with the men's team, who were also grappling with the tragedy. They played cards together before the Opening Ceremony. They teased each other in the online room at the Athletes' Village. And yesterday, when the women's practice had just begun and the men were tied two sets all with Russia in their semifinal, Lang Ping gave them time to squeeze into a room near the practice court at Beijing Normal University to watch the rest of the match on television. They cheered as the men eked out a 15-13 fifth-set victory and a berth in the gold-medal match. Then they went back to practice.
This might rank as the happiest silver medal awarded in Beijing. The U.S. women were ninth at the world championships two years ago, third at last year's World Cup. The Olympic silver was a pipe dream. Even the medal round was a stretch. To win a medal here, they had to beat favored China, Italy and Cuba. And they did it.
Sunday, they will be in the stands, cheering the men in their own gold-medal game.
After that, the U.S. women's volleyball team will return home to grapple with the loss of a member of the USA Volleyball family during these Games. Lang Ping, too, will put family first. She'll vacation with her daughter, Lydia, and says she won't coach in China again (she coached them to the Olympic silver in 1996) because China has many great coaches and Lydia is in the United States, and she wants to be closer to her.
Family first. Perhaps that was the greatest lesson the U.S. women's volleyball team showed all who watched them play in Beijing. The silver medal, all things considered, is just a piece of hardware.