August 09, 2008

BEIJING -- David Johnson, the United States national rifle coach, heard the terrible news the way most of the coaches did, in a 6 p.m. message passed to team leaders from USOC officials. A sparse CNN account on his Blackberry confirmed it: two American sightseers were stabbed by a Beijing resident who then threw himself off of the second floor of the picturesque 13th century Drum Tower.

And these weren't any two Americans, these were the in-laws to Hugh McCutcheon, the head U.S. volleyball coach, and the parents of '04 U.S. Olympic volleyball player Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman McCutcheon. Elisabeth was with her parents, but unharmed, during the attack. Todd Bachman died Saturday morning, the victim of what Chinese and American officials are deeming a random attack. Barbara Bachman arrived at the hulking Peking Union Medical College Hospital at 1:03 p.m. in serious condition, and 20 minutes later underwent emergency surgery.

U.S. teams were briefed on the situation, according to American athletes in the Olympic Village Saturday night, and were told that the attack is considered to be a freak event in a city with very little violent crime against foreigners, and that there would be no heightened security measures, other than a recommendation to travel in groups.

Johnson, along with shotgun coach Lloyd Woodhouse, interviewed in the Olympic Village on Saturday, were with the team in Beijing for a test event in April, and found China's capital to be exceedingly safe. "We all felt very comfortable and safe," Woodhouse said, "and that's not true everywhere we go."

China has clearly gone to great lengths to make foreigners feel at home in Beijing, with particular interest in impressing Americans. Beijing cabbies -- decked out in the pale yellow shirts and navy and yellow striped ties issued by the government for the Games -- are quick to ask English-speaking passengers what image they will take home of China.

Johnson solemnly said, "I'm sure [the Chinese] are mortified" at the death of two American team family members. They came, after all, the day after triumphant opening ceremonies that packed parks with viewing screens to capacity, as "Jiayou Zhongguo!" ("Let's go, China!) rang through the streets.

After the U.S. women won their opening match against Japan, what should have been a joyful press conference was, instead, heartbreaking. "You have to understand what Liz Bachman is to USA Volleyball," said team libero Stacy Sykora. "She's like, probably the nicest person in the entire world, her and her family." And then Stacy broke into tears, but she continued. "Her family is like our family, because they traveled with us, she fought in the 2004 Olympics with us, and she was my roommate in 2004."

Todd Bachman was the CEO of Bachman's Inc., a floral and home and garden company run by Bachman relatives that operates 29 retail stores in Minnesota. The literal roots of the company stretch back Henry Bachman, Sr., who immigrated with his wife, Hattie, from Germany in 1885. Four years later, Henry built his first 10 greenhouses.

At around 1:30 a.m., two staff members from Peking Union made their way through the labyrinthine hospital that dominates a Beijing block to address a handful of reporters who had stumbled upon a third floor conference room.

A man who identified himself as Dr. Wang, in his lab coat, shuffled across the white granite floor of the conference room and read a statement from the patient's family asking for privacy.

Ma Enling, the hospital's director of international collaboration, said that doctors at the hospital had to sign a written consent not to disclose information, because a lawyer for the victim's family would not accept a verbal agreement.

It was an ambiguous end to a sad day for two nations with a unique and important opportunity to get to know one another. How the tragedy of August 10, 2008 will color the XXIX Olympiad is a story that only the coming days will tell.

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