JUST DAYS after his father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was murdered, Hugh McCutcheon returned to the scene of the crime. He was accompanied by his sisters-in-law, who had flown to Beijing from Minnesota upon hearing that their father had been fatally stabbed—and their mother, Barbara, critically injured—in an attack near Beijing's Drum Tower. The threesome held hands. "When you're in a different place, it's hard to picture what it's all about," McCutcheon told SI 18 hours before the team he coaches was to face Brazil in the men's indoor volleyball final. "They wanted to get a context where it happened."
These Olympics were all about context, a fortnight when life got in the way of sport. The more celebrated American volleyball coach heading into the Games was "Jenny" Lang Ping, who starred for China's gold medal team at the 1984 Games and would lead the U.S. women to a surprise silver medal. But a random act of violence had thrust McCutcheon into a role even less deserved than desired. As capably as his players dealt with Brazil's towering middle blockers, he handled his family's misfortune with uncommon grace; he was forthright and never trafficked in grief. He missed the team's first three games to spend time with his wife, Elisabeth, and her family, returning only when Barbara was well enough to be transported to the U.S.
After the U.S. dispatched the favored Brazilians to win its first gold since 1988, the coach's emotions—"The best of times, the worst of times," McCutcheon said—bubbled over in a tunnel at the gymnasium. Shortly after the game he boarded a plane for Minnesota, where Bachman will be buried this Friday.
The triumph belonged to players like four-time Olympic setter Lloy Ball and opposite hitter Clayton Stanley. The tragedy was McCutcheon's. But so, too, was the tribute. "The gold medal," said Brazil coach Bernardinho, "is in good hands."
Read more from Michael Farber about the U.S. volleyball teams at SI.com/Olympics.
DIGGING DEEP By beating Brazil, Richard Lambourne (center) and the U.S. men gave some solace to McCutcheon (background).