Athens-bound Argentine overcomes family griefs

Published: Friday, Aug. 6 2004 7:22 p.m. MDT

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro — Nobody going to the Athens Olympics has a sad story quite like Walter Herrmann's.

It's a horror story — all of it true — filled with death, grieving, resiliency and more death.

Not many people outside of Argentina and Spain have heard of Walter Herrmann, a 25-year-old, 6-foot-9 reserve forward for the South American country. He's one of only two changes to the team that won the silver medal at the 2002 World Basketball Championships — in large part because of his ability to overcome tragedy.

On a sunny afternoon in July 2003, Herrmann lost the three most important women in his life: his fiancee, his mother and his younger sister. Exactly one year later, on a day Herrmann played one of his greatest games, his father died.

"I couldn't imagine the pain," said Argentine teammate Pepe Sanchez, a former NBA guard. "It's very tragic, and I admire him for standing up and keeping on going in life, because I don't know what I would do if that was me."

Herrmann's initial loss happened when the three women, along with a friend of his mother's and her daughter, were driving down a two-lane country road. They collided head-on with another car occupied by an older couple, and all seven people died.

"I suppose that someone fell asleep. I can't explain it at all. Nobody can," Herrmann said.

He was in the Argentine city of La Plata that day, training with the national team, and the memory of his disbelief, shock and anger remains vivid.

"I knew they were going to visit my girlfriend's family," he recalled, speaking through a translator. "That day I took a siesta and woke up at 6 in the afternoon and called my girlfriend's house. That's when I got the news about my girlfriend only. I didn't know about the others. I was choked up, and I broke everything in the hotel room."

As Herrmann drove to an airfield to take a private plane to Buenos Aires, he began making phone calls and discovered the news was far worse. Not only had the car crash claimed the life of his fiancee — champion swimmer Maria Yanina Garrone — it also had killed his mother, Maria Christina Heinrich, and his younger sister, Barbara.

"I got to Buenos Aires and met my other sister, and about 2 a.m., I took my car and drove 200 kilometers to the village where my girlfriend's family lived. I stayed two hours to mourn with the bodies," he said. "Everything happened so quickly, it was a crazy day and I couldn't comprehend what had happened."

At the insistence of his older sister, Herrmann returned to Spain to resume his basketball career.

"The novelty of the story made the country sad for me, and wherever we went in Argentina the press was following me. So we went to Spain, and the first three months I was very angry and had a very bad time, but after that I stuck my head up," he said. "It was complicated. You never get used to the idea that you've lost your family and your girlfriend."

Following his 2003-04 season in Spain, Herrmann returned to Argentina and tried out for the Olympic team.

"He earned his spot on this team," teammate Manu Ginobili said. "He earned a lot of respect from us."

On July 18, the one-year anniversary of his tremendous loss, he had 38 points and 11 rebounds to lead Argentina to the South American championship.

"I slept very poorly the day before, couldn't get any sleep. But after midnight I felt like it was a special day for me. I had the thought that (my family) would be helping me," he said.

But when Herrmann returned to his hotel that night, he received word that his father had died of a heart attack.

When Herrmann was put on the Olympic team by coach Ruben Magnano, he surprised his countrymen by accepting the invitation and traveling to Europe for an exhibition tour just more than a week after his father's death.

"Now I am of the mind to look in front of me," Herrmann said, "and not behind."

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