For the second time at these Games, I screamed at the television set.
The first was when Jason Lezak swam down Allain Bernard at the end of the 4x100 meter freestyle relay. The second was when the U.S. men's volleyball team beat Russia in a thrilling five-set semifinal, putting the Americans in the gold medal match.
By now you probably know the history. The men's volleyball team played its first game at these Olympics only one day after head coach Hugh McCutcheon's in-laws were affected by a tragedy so inexplicable and so brutal it's impossible to put into words.
For a week, McCutcheon was away from the team as he tended to his fractured family. But now, he's back on the sidelines, and the U.S. is playing its best Olympic volleyball in years.
They are 7-0 in Beijing, guaranteed of at least a silver medal. It'll be the first Olympic medal a U.S. indoor men's team has won since 1992, and from this vantage point, it couldn't happen to a better person.
I say this because I sat down with McCutcheon earlier this week for an interview. To be honest, I was surprised when we got the call that it was going to happen. McCutcheon had so many issues to deal with, on the court and off, I didn't think sit-down interviews would be on the agenda. He did it, he said, because his family and U.S. Volleyball wanted everyone to know how they're doing, and they wanted everyone to know how much they appreciate the well wishes, which have flooded in from around the world.
McCutcheon was open and honest with me. He was patient and understanding, during a time when he would have been immediately forgiven for acting otherwise. Granted, we only spent about fifteen minutes together. We didn't become close friends. He looked at me as a reporter and I looked at him as the subject of my story. But after doing thousands of interviews over the course of the last twelve years, I like to think I can get a decent read on people after sitting down with them and asking them a few questions - before, during and after the cameras are rolling.
Hugh McCutcheon struck me as a class act. He is smart but understated; his answers were direct but nuanced. He politely and rightly resists any perceived attempts to make his situation more sensational than it is. He didn't look at his watch and he didn't roll his eyes and he didn't stop and say it was time to leave.
McCutcheon is not a man who speaks in sound bites, which for me meant it was even more difficult than usual to capture his story in the span of one brief report.
It would have been impossible to define him fully; I can only hope I did it fairly. I was given 150 seconds of airtime, and I'm pretty sure you could spent 150 hours with this man and still miss something. Just ask his players. One of them, Rich Lambourne, said, "I have no frame of reference on how to deal with a situation like Hugh's family has had to deal with, but I've learned a tremendous amount about being a human being from Hugh."
Even though the main reason McCutcheon and I sat down was because of what happened to his family, I wanted to make sure talk of the attack and its aftermath didn't monopolize the entire conversation. I asked him about Brazil and Russia, two other strong teams that made the medal round. I asked him about his team's recent World League title, a tournament the U.S. won for the first time last month. He seemed eager to discuss just volleyball, even for a few seconds, and it's hard to blame him. You can imagine the kind of conversations he's encountered for almost two weeks - people asking him how he's doing, how he's feeling, and what they can do - all the stuff we say to people when we don't know what else to say.
For all that time, McCutcheon has had to build and maintain a wall of almost superhuman emotional strength. He should be allowed to take it down once in a while. He should be allowed to just talk sport.
It's hard to believe McCutcheon takes much solace in stories consistently slugged "triumph over tragedy," even though, for those of us in the media, that's the quickest and most alliterative way to classify what he and his team are doing. It seems to me that Hugh McCutcheon just wants his team to play well, and his family to get well. If the sport he loves gets more attention in the process, well, that's just fine.