Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
In the locker room of Beijing's Capital Gymnasium this summer, members of the U.S. men's Olympic volleyball team interrupted their greatest moment of celebration for a moment of silence, a private tribute for a fallen family member whose memory they had just honored with the most stirring victory in the team's history. One by one, the players reached out to Hugh McCutcheon, their coach and pillar of strength, unsure whether to high-five or break down, to laugh or cry. "An impossible mix of emotions," said veteran setter Lloy Ball, whose tears were dripping onto the strap that held the gold medal around his neck.
On Aug. 9, the day after the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics, McCutcheon's wife, Elisabeth, herself a player on the 2004 U.S. team, was sightseeing with her parents, Barbara and Todd Bachman, at Beijing's 13th Century Drum Tower when a deranged man attacked the older couple with a knife before jumping to his own death from the bell tower. Todd Bachman died from his stab wounds and Barbara was rushed into surgery. She was later moved to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and released in mid-September. Elisabeth, who watched the attack in horror, was physically unharmed.
McCutcheon's players, medal contenders but certain underdogs for gold, rallied around their coach and their extended family. McCutcheon left the squad for its first three victories in the preliminary round, putting assistant coach Ron Larsen in charge. Before the medal round, Elisabeth McCutcheon sent a note to the team, telling them the best thing they could do for the family was to play great volleyball, just as her parents had wished.
With volleyball's waning popularity and its best players shifting to the beach game, it had been 20 years since a U.S. indoor team had won Olympic gold. Karch Kiraly and Steve Timmons powered the U.S. to gold in 1984 and '88 before leaving the indoor world. In the ensuing years the team never made it back to an Olympic final, as many of its best players opted for the two-man beach game.
McCutcheon returned for the single-elimination medal-round contests. First the U.S. rallied from two-sets-to-one down in the quarterfinals to beat Serbia, then survived a five-setter in the semis against Russia. After his team dropped the first set of in the final, 25-20, against Brazil, the U.S. coach spoke to his players in a measured manner without ever tugging on emotional strings. "We were glued to his words," team MVP Clay Stanley said.
The U.S. rallied to take the next three sets by scores of 25-22, 25-21 and 25-23, trailing at various points in each game. McCutcheon joined in the on-court frivolity as best he could, then preceded his players into a hallway before breaking down. " I've tried to compartmentalize my emotion after what happened," he said later, "but at that moment the filters came down. It was the best of times and the worst of times."
McCutcheon and his team, who brought out their best in the face of the worst, are a worthy nominee for Sportsmen of the Year.