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A Tragic Loss for U.S. Coach

Candrea's wife died in July, stunning softball community

August 08, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Mike Candrea made a decision two weeks ago to fulfill his coaching duties and lead the U.S. Olympic softball team to Athens in its quest for a third consecutive gold medal.

It was a decision he never thought he'd have to make. When it came to tough choices in the Candrea household, his wife, Sue, was often the one making the final call.

"Sue took care of everything outside of softball," said Larry Ray, an assistant under Candrea at Arizona for 13 years. "It was of great comfort to him, that she took a lot of the responsibilities off his shoulders so he could pursue his dreams.

"I don't think he's written a check in the last 34 years."

In 27 years of marriage, Sue Candrea raised the couple's two children and ran the household while her husband built the Wildcats into a powerhouse that won six NCAA championships. She was devoted to assuring this Olympic experience was one they would fully share. She retired from her job as a corporate accountant in January to travel with the team on its cross-country tour.

Then, on July 18, she died of complications from surgery after suffering a brain aneurysm at an airport in Stevens Point, Wis., as the team awaited its flight to Connecticut.

Her sudden death sent shockwaves that reverberated throughout the tight-knit softball community. Many knew the effervescent woman, a regular presence in the stands.

"She was so much fun at the games," said Leah O'Brien-Amico, a three-time Olympian who played at Arizona from 1993 to '97. "She would have her own opinion about who should be playing and it didn't always match with what [Mike] thought.

"To me, she was just another part of the family. I would stop by and visit them at their home and she would have dinner ready."

Named U.S. national team coach two years ago, Mike Candrea decided to stay on and realize a lifelong dream. After finishing up personal matters, he joined the team in Athens last Sunday.

Ray, who served as Arizona's interim coach this season, visited Candrea at his home outside Tucson late last month and said he was ready to go despite a grief-filled two weeks.

"He's had a lot of tough decisions to make," Ray said. "I just think that in the end, when he looked at it all, Sue was so excited about this opportunity. He knew how excited she was and I think that made it a lot easier to decide."

In 18 years at Arizona, Candrea has won nearly 1,000 games and made the Wildcats a worthy challenger to UCLA as the top college program.

Those closest to the 48-year-old say he is one of the sport's best teachers, often serving as a source for instructional books and videos. More important, O'Brien-Amico said Candrea is a father figure to his players.

"He's a big believer in balance in your life," she said. "He teaches things that you can take into your own life. I know that you get excited to play for him and you want to take it all in because you know that you're going to be a better player as a result."

Family, according to Ray, is of utmost importance to the coach.

"You look at his office and he's got pictures of children from his first team," he said. "He sends birthday cards to them every year. He goes out of his way to make that happen."

Nothing on a professional level has compared to his current assignment.

At the time of his appointment as Team USA coach, Candrea said, "I've been blessed with a great career but nothing can match wearing the USA across your chest and representing your country at the highest level."

John Rittman, a U.S. assistant coach, said the focus on winning another gold medal can serve as a distraction from Candrea's personal struggles.

"Any time you suffer something this tragic, one of the keys is getting back into a routine when you can get some sense of normalcy," said Rittman, also the coach at Stanford. "Every day, it creeps back in at some point.

"Certainly, it's going to be tough on him for a while. But you have to be able to separate things and eventually you have to perform. He knows how to do that."

The U.S. team, which has won every major international competition since 1983, has vowed to win gold in Sue Candrea's memory. But the tragic turn of events on an otherwise routine day still lingers over a team that worries about its personable leader.

"It's going to leave a lot of impact on everyone who was at the airport that day," Rittman said. "Death is never easy to deal with."

Pitcher Jennie Finch, who was national player of the year at Arizona and is the face of softball these days, said Sue Candrea sacrificed much to allow her husband to reach the heights of his sport.

"She was the pillar of the family," Finch said. "She was the one who raised the kids and allowed him to be on the road for months out of the year. A whole softball world has her to thank."

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