The U.S. women's volleyball coach has recovered from tragedy in Beijing to lead his team to the gold medal final
LONDON (AP) — Hugh McCutcheon stayed on the sideline and watched with delight. All around him, his players celebrated on the court, coming together for a group hug.
The U.S. volleyball coach often speaks of creating a new story. This is it.
This run by the American women’s team at the Olympics is providing all the material, and with a star named Destinee, no less. Next up is the gold-medal match Saturday night.
Everything is so different now, four years after McCutcheon’s father-in-law was stabbed to death at a Beijing tourist spot right before the opening ceremony. Different athletes now, different tournament — he coached the men to gold last time amid the anguish — different everything.
McCutcheon has long since separated that China trip from his latest coaching assignment: bringing home the first Olympic gold for the American women. They won silver in Beijing and soon after committed themselves to gold in London.
While McCutcheon planned to hunker down Friday studying film and plotting strategy for the title match against Brazil, the U.S. women’s basketball team was also getting ready.
Coach Geno Auriemma’s four-time defending champions, led by Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, play France for the gold medal on Saturday night at O2 Arena.
Also Saturday, Usain Bolt looks to add another gold to his 100 and 200 when the Jamaican sprint great runs in the 4×100-meter relay at Olympic Stadium. Across town at Wembley Stadium, Brazil and Mexico meet for gold in men’s soccer.
McCutcheon’s players are thrilled he has another chance to coach a championship. But not because of the turmoil he faced in China.
“We’ve never actually thought about that,” outside hitter Logan Tom said. “I think it’s a totally different step in his life. He was coaching guys, we’re girls. There’s definitely big differences just in that realm of things.”
Destinee Hooker delivers the offensive blows and key blocks for the unbeaten and world No. 1 Americans, who are looking at long last to win it all at the Olympics. It has been two silvers and a bronze so far for the U.S. since volleyball joined the Olympic program in 1964.
As chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” rang through Earls Court after a commanding semifinal win against South Korea on Saturday, McCutcheon quickly shook hands with the opposing team before standing back to observe — just as he always does.
This is their moment. That’s the way he prefers it. He never planned for Beijing to become all about him and his adversity.
“It’s not really relevant,” McCutcheon said. “I understand the media’s interest, but generally the media are the only people who bring it up. It’s not part of our story; it’s not part of our journey. From Day 1, it’s been about USA women’s volleyball and trying to get to the mountain top. That’s it.”
During breaks, McCutcheon seems to find just the right words to motivate his players. He seems to say just enough.
“One at a time here, 1-2-3!”
To this day, McCutcheon will discuss the triumph of the men’s team in Beijing. He avoids talking about the killing of his wife’s father. The women he now works with each day don’t bring it up, either. Instead, what’s shared the things that made the men’s team so successful.
“I’m sure it was great for him,” Christa Harmotto said. “The men’s group is a great group. That was a separate story for him. He came in and is working with us, I’m sure carrying over some tactics that obviously worked for him and the men in 2008. ”
“They talk about the little plays, and even talking to some of the men’s players, hearing some of the same things he tells us every day,” she added. “We find ourselves saying them a lot, too. It’s saying and doing everything you can to win the next point. It’s making all the little plays, and it really works.”
McCutcheon acknowledges he’s using many of the principles that worked in Beijing to this team. He likes the blend of what he calls a “balance of veteran leadership and experience and the youth and exuberance that goes with that.”
“I think that’s pretty compelling myself. But I’m here living it. So, of course, I’m not very objective,” the coach said. “There’s no way that A equals B every time you show up to the Olympic Games. It’s not algorithmic. So, yeah, it’s a different journey on a lot of levels.”
Lindsey Berg, the three-time Olympic setter playing with a strained left Achilles tendon, and the others want to leave their mark on these games. Just like McCutcheon, who with a new Olympic title to talk about might finally be able to put to rest the never-ending questions about Beijing.
“This is a new story and he’s wanted it to be a new story, and we’ve created a new story,” Berg said. “I’m sure he’s as happy for us as we are for him to get into that gold-medal match because we’ve all worked as a family together for four years and created this incredible team. It’s a new story. So far so good.”
NBC Saturday Olympic prime time schedule:
8 p.m.-midnight (EDT/PDT)
Track and field: gold-medal finals in men’s 4x100m relay, men’s 5,000m, men’s javelin, women’s 4x400m relay, women’s 800m, women’s high jump. Men’s diving: platform gold medal final. Women’s volleyball: gold medal final U.S vs. Brazil.
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