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BEIJING 2008

Reality pierces Olympic bubble

August 12, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

BEIJING -- He wore his blue USA sweat jacket zipped up to the neck, tight, as if it were a nylon piece of armor.

His eyes were vacant, pierced by the reality that even in its most charmed moments, life carries no shield.

"It hurts," said Hugh McCutcheon, the U.S. men's volleyball coach. "I think it's something that no one should ever have to go through."

His sport is one of both soaring sets and vicious spikes.

One moment, McCutcheon was on a cozy gym floor Saturday afternoon, surrounded by his giddy team as it went through a final pre-competition practice.

The next moment, he was on a frenzied city street, surrounded by death.

One moment, his phone contained a happy text message from his father-in-law.

The next moment, that phone carried the news that his father-in-law had been slain during a nearby tour of the ancient Drum Tower.

Todd Bachman, 62, a business owner from Lakeville, Minn., had been stabbed to death during an apparent robbery attempt. His wife, Barbara, while trying to help him, had been seriously wounded in the attack that also injured an unnamed Chinese tour guide.

Their daughter, Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman, a former Olympian who was with them at the time, was not hurt.

She was the one who called McCutcheon. She is his wife.

"My first thought was, obviously, how do I get there, I've got to get to my wife, and I've got to support her," he said Monday evening in his first interview since the incident.

McCutcheon left his team and has not been back. He left Olympic dreamland and has not been back.

In some ways, everyone involved in these Beijing Games left that protective five-ring bubble and has not been back.

You can light Olympic torches on every crowded street corner and recite Olympic oaths until you are blue in the face, but even here, even now, nothing is sacred, and nobody is truly safe.

An aging couple travels halfway across the world to cheer for their son-in-law coach, they buy a tour package, they buy tickets, a big week at the Olympics, and what happens?

Less than 24 hours after the opening ceremony, they are stabbed in an act of violence so senseless, the alleged assailant, Tang Yongming, immediately committed suicide by jumping 130 feet off a Drum Tower balcony.

"Life's not fair, but it's never going to be about that kind of stuff," said McCutcheon, 38, a New Zealand native who lives with his wife in Irvine. "At the end of day, it happened, and it seems the sooner we can come to grips with that, the better off we're going to be."

So he gave a 20-minute interview Monday night to thank everyone for their support, and did so clearly and strongly, even while fighting through the numbness and masking the pain.

"For me personally, anger isn't an emotion I'm allowing myself to indulge in at this stage," he said haltingly, touching his shaved head.

Instead, he wanted to focus on the facts. He believes the act was completely random and in no way targeted his family, as they were wearing nothing to identify them as associated with the U.S. team.

"I believe random acts of violence are random acts of violence," McCutcheon said. "There was no indication of any premeditation. Unfortunately, it was a case of the wrong place at the wrong time."

Then there the facts of his loved ones and lost one.

Todd Bachman ran a giant garden and landscape business in the Twin Cities. In more ways than one, he was known for the things he sowed.

"It's just hard to imagine a nicer person that this tragic and senseless event could happen to," said McCutcheon. "This was a man of great personal integrity. He stood for the all the right things and he lived them."

Barbara Bachman will be forever known as the woman willing to risk her life to protect her husband, a woman who has since endured long hours of surgery with an uncertain recovery.

"They were here as part of a tour package to obviously support the Olympics," McCutcheon said of his in-laws. "[They] were excited . . . to support me and the team I coach."

As for Elisabeth, she will forever have to find a way to live with horrid memories yet unspoken away from the privacy of her family.

"Clearly, Elisabeth is a victim in this as well," McCutcheon said. "She's physically unscathed, but having to deal with this event has been hard for her. The last couple of days, we've been able to talk through it, but obviously it's a lot of tears and a lot of hugs."

So what about him? What is a coach and a son-in-law and the current face of this tragedy supposed to do?

Does he return to work and chase what could be an even more meaningful gold medal?

For now, with a funeral to plan and medical procedures to monitor and hospital hallway prayers to be said -- all while being thousands of miles from home -- the answer is no.

"Volleyball is my job, my family is my life," McCutcheon said. "That distinction has been very easy for me. At this stage it's very easy to focus on the task at hand, which is taking care of my immediate family."

He phoned his team before its first game Sunday against Venezuela. His players took the floor with the victims' initials written on the backs of their shoes, and with a silent team prayer before the game in memory of Todd Bachman.

Then, in five games, in a match that was much tougher than it should have been, the U.S. team won.

"It's not exactly how you want to prepare for your first match, having to deal with a tragedy of this nature," McCutcheon said.

The hotel interview ended Monday evening, and McCutcheon stood up with his back to huge windows overlooking a madly blinking city with its buzzing Olympics.

He shook hands tightly. He never turned around.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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