USA Men Volleyball; From Tragedy To a Golden Ending

Matthew IrbySenior Analyst IAugust 24, 2008

Team USA volleyball arrived here in Beijing in attempts to continue to restoration of what was once a powerhouse team.

Not since their back-to-back gold medals in 1984 and 1988 and then a bronze in 1992 had the United States medal in the Olympics.  Being eliminated in the round-robin preliminaries in 1996 and 2000, which was rock-bottom when the USA went 0-5.

The United States began to re-discovered their winning ways in Athens with a 4th place finish, dropping down with a 10th in the 2006 World Championship and then back up with a 4th place finish in the 2007 Worlds.

Team USA coach Hugh McCutcheon had his team in their best shape and ready for the Olympics with a first place finish in the 2008 World League.

With his team primed and ready, McCutcheon and his American players were ready to take on the best in the world.

But before pool play even began the team, and more importantly McCutcheon were struck with an unthinkable tragedy.

McCutcheon's wife Elisabeth, a member of the 2004 Olympic volleyball team, and her parents were touring around Beijing when they were attacked.

The assailant stabbed and killed Elisabeth's father and seriously injured her mother.  The attacker then next jumped to his own death.

This attack has been widely covered in the Beijing Games, so I won't go into any more detail, but to say that McCutcheon's mother-in-law is expected to make a full recovery.

Coach McCutcheon was not with his team for their opening round victory over Venezuela, but after talking with his wife, they made the decision and he returned to the team.

Team USA would fly through Group A with a perfect 5-0 record, including wins over powerhouses Italy and Bulgaria.

In the quarterfinal round, the United States drew #4 internationally ranked Serbian team.  The Serbs had struggled early in group play, but advanced to face the Americans in the toughest of all four quarterfinal matches.

Down 1-0 and 2-1 in sets, the United States rallied to win the final two sets 25-18 and 15-12 and defeat the Serbs and next face the incredible Russian team.

In this semifinal match the United States jumped out quickly winning the first two sets 25-22, 25-21.  But the Russians never gave up and came back to win sets three and four and force a fifth and decisive set.

The Russians who had won silver in Sydney and bronze in Athens and were also the reigning world champions had the Americans on the ropes.

But with a type of Rocky Balboa fight in them, the Americans rallied and won the fifth set, 15-13.  Highlighted by the final point scored on a block of Russia's best outside hitter Maxim Mikhaylov, who already had recorded 28 kills.

This set-up the Americans for a showdown with the #1 internationally ranked Brazilians.  In the 2008 World League semifinals, the Americans defeated the Brazilians in Brazil, but this time it was for a gold medal and Brazil was the defending gold medalist.

Also in these Olympics, the Brazilians and Americans had matched up in gold medal rounds in men's beach volleyball and the day before in the women's indoor volleyball.  USA won on the beach and Brazil indoors, 1-1, this was the tie-breaker.

Brazil wasted no time, winning the first set quickly and decisively, 25-20.

But not giving up the Americans tied the sets at one a piece with a 25-22 victory.  And then took over the lead by winning the third set 25-21.

Late in the fourth set, the Brazilians led 20-16 and seemed on their way to force a fifth set and doing so with the momentum on their side.

But after a time out from Coach McCutcheon, the United States went on a tear, winning 9 of the next 12 points and defeating the Brazilians 25-23 for the gold medal.

In was an incredible victory over a power-packed team of champions for a team and a coach that had been through so much.

A two-week period that had started with the senseless death of McCutcheon's father-in-law, followed by the claiming of an Olympic gold medal.  It was a surreal week for McCutcheon and his players, but ultimately a week that allowed them to have their perseverance pay-off.