BEIJING The dual emotional roller-coaster rides known as the U.S. men's and women's volleyball runs at the Beijing Olympics continue their parallel courses as the U.S. males matched their female counterparts by advancing to a weekend gold-medal match.
In Thursday afternoon's semifinals at Beijing's Capital Gymnasium, the U.S. men downed Russia to advance to Sunday's championship match against Brazil, guaranteeing the American men would finish with no less than a silver medal.
A day before on the same court floor, the U.S. women defeated Cuba to advance to their own gold-medal affair also against Brazil, and also with a no-less-than-silver guarantee.
Both have ended long medal droughts the women haven't won a medal since claiming the bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Games and haven't been in a gold-medal finale since falling to China in 1984 in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the men haven't won a medal since you guessed it, the bronze at Barcelona in '92, although they've been playing for gold a lot more recently than the women, winning the top medals in 1984 and '88.
And then there is the real common thread better yet, a heart string, that wasn't just tugged but suddenly jerked on the opening day of Olympic competition, when Todd Bachman was killed and Barbara Bachman was severely injured, stabbed at a Beijing tourist site by an assailant who then took his own life.
The Bachmans' daughter is former U.S. women's volleyball team member and '04 Olympian Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman who was present at the incident but not injured. They are in-laws to U.S. men's volleyball head coach Hugh McCutcheon.
Later that night, the U.S. women with tears in their eyes and heavy hearts came out and struggled to win their opening match against an inferior opponent.
The U.S. men came out the next morning without their coach, as McCutcheon missed the first several matches to be with his convalescing mother-in-law and his wife.
From start to finish, the U.S. men and women have had the Bachmans on their minds and more. The women have inked Wiz's name and her parents on their arms or other body parts, and the men have written the Bachmans' initials on their shoes.
Winning gold medals by both teams would be a fitting finish for their Beijing experiences.
"As a person not fond of roller coasters, it's been tough," said U.S. libero Rich Lambourne. "It was tough in the beginning, dealing with Hugh and Elisabeth's situation, but I think we've for the most part not put it behind us necessarily but not let it be a distraction to us and maybe let it re-focus us."
And as tough as the U.S. men think they've had it with the absences, the constant questions and the constant reminders, U.S. middle blocker Ryan Millar tries to imagine the greater impact on the American women.
"Looking at what our women's team, the amount of pain they suffered I mean, we know how much we suffered with Wiz's and the Bachmans' tragedy, but I can't even imagine them," he said. "They all knew their parents well and would go out and hang out with them. It's been pretty amazing that they could come back and dedicate this tournament to their memory they've just played fantastic volleyball."
Just like the men are playing fantastic volleyball.
And spurring them on was a morning e-mail from Wiz McCutcheon.
"She was saying how much she appreciates our effort and what we can do," said Lambourne. "Certainly it makes it good for her family to see that we're out here trying as hard as we can. Whether that's a tribute or not is up to them."
Several matches into the Olympics tournament, the American men weren't sure if they would see McCutcheon again on the Beijing sidelines.
"It was completely his decision," Millar said. "Obviously, we'd understand if he wanted to go home, because the Olympics are the Olympics it's not life. It's two weeks of your life that are important, but not nearly as important as your family and your wife and her family."
But when Barbara Bachman was flown by air ambulance back to the U.S. nearly a week after the incident, it was time for McCutcheon to return to the team sort of.
"He was hurting he's still hurting. But at some point, the shock kind of goes away somehow and this event grabs you," said U.S team scout Carl McGown, who was BYU's head volleyball coach when McCutcheon played and coached in Provo."But he's not coming back to the team (regularly) he's only here for the matches and some of the preparation. It's going to be a bittersweet thing it is already a bittersweet thing the success and the terrible tragedy."
E-mail: [email protected]