U.S. watches Brazil celebrate again
LONDON -- Lindsey Berg, Logan Tom and three of the other members of the U.S. women's volleyball team knew the drill all too well.
Four years ago, the five of them stood in the exact same spot, politely grinning and bowing and accepting their silver medals after losing to Brazil in the gold-medal final of the Olympic women's volleyball tournament. But that didn't make this any easier. Again they had come up short. Again they had lost to Brazil. And again the score was 3-1.
Though they were proud at how far they had come as a team, they were crushed that their journey toward redemption -- and for Berg and Tom, the likely end of their careers -- didn't come with the perfect finish they had hoped.
Many of the women wearing green and yellow on the other side are friends. People they had built relationships with through professional volleyball. But that didn't mean it didn't feel like a kick to the gut every second the Brazilians jumped, yelled, danced, shadowboxed and somersaulted their way around the court in a Carnival-worthy celebration.
Though no one would come right out and criticize the Brazilians -- they had earned the right to samba on the medal stand if they so pleased -- some of the Americans seemed, at least, less than thrilled with the difference in celebratory cultures.
"They celebrate a little differently than Americans do," Tom said. "I try to let it slide. I did tell them, 'Get your [behinds] down from the podium or whatever and give us five before you celebrate.' It's just a respect kind of thing. But that's their culture. They celebrate how they want to celebrate."
Berg, the American captain, echoed Tom's words.
"It's not how we handle things," she said. "But we can't judge. We can have our opinions. Everyone has a right to an opinion. I guess they're happy."
One person who didn't care was U.S. coach Hugh McCutcheon. He understood. If the Americans didn't want to watch the Brazilians celebrate, they should have figured out a way to maintain the 25-11 romp they put on Brazil in the first set. Instead, Brazil tweaked its attack in the second set and made a handful of other tactical adjustments that the Americans simply couldn't answer. So much so that they didn't even lead another set the rest of the night, as Brazil won three straight sets -- 25-17, 25-20 and 25-17 -- to take the gold.
"If that's their way, that's their way," McCutcheon said of the exuberant celebration. "Why wouldn't you be happy? Let them run around and do whatever they want to do. It's not an issue for us."
The bigger issue is how the U.S. could look so dominant in the first set then never lead for the rest of the match. For a U.S. team that had only lost two sets the entire tournament, a team that had arrived in London No. 1 in the world, the sudden turn was a shock to its system. Especially since it already had beaten Brazil 3-1 during the preliminary stages of the tournament.
"Right now I still believe we're a gold-medal team," Berg said. "And I'll believe it for the rest of time."
At a news conference after the loss, the 32-year-old Berg announced her retirement from the sport. It was also possibly the last hurrah for McCutcheon, who already has accepted a position to become the women's coach at the University of Minnesota. It was McCutcheon who coached the U.S. men to Olympic gold in Beijing after his father-in-law was randomly attacked and killed during the Games at a popular Chinese tourist destination.
With a win Saturday, McCutcheon would have become just the second man to coach a gold medal-winning men's and women's team. Instead, the other man to earn that honor, Brazil's Jose Roberto Guimaraes, became the first coach to win three Olympic golds with teams of both genders.
After the match, the U.S. team was disappointed but not distraught. Players and coaches alike spoke of the pride they had in winning a silver medal.
"It's a mix of emotions," McCutcheon said. "In the short term, we're sad. We're disappointed. We had a great four years. But am I heartbroken? Am I feeling we didn't work hard enough? That there's more we could do? No. I'm going to be OK. The sun will come up tomorrow and the same for our athletes."
Said Berg: "Obviously it's disappointing, but it's been an incredible journey the last four years. I'm proud of my team and have no regrets of anything. I left it all on the court."
McCutcheon insisted the problem on Saturday was never effort. During one timeout he even told his team, "We might be getting outplayed, but we're not going to get outworked."
After the match, he noted that while people on the outside might see the legacy of his team as a group that had a great run but failed to bring home the first gold medal in U.S. women's volleyball history, he would see it as a team that never quit. Even on a disappointing night, when everything seemed to be going against it and most teams would have fractured, McCutcheon was proud his team never quit. Unfortunately, on this night, chemistry and unity wasn't enough.
"If we're not good enough, we're not good enough," he said. "I'm OK with that. But if we don't give the best effort, I'm not going to sleep well. And let's just say that won't keep me up tonight."
Instead, McCutcheon's thoughts are about heading home to his wife and two children. And the move from Southern California to Minnesota later this month. He has said from the beginning that this team would have its own story, that what happened in London would have nothing to do with the emotional roller coaster he rode in Beijing. And now that his run had come to an end, he was thrilled that it was all about volleyball. And nothing else. Finally an ordinary Olympic experience.
"That's what the Olympics should be about," he said. "Come and play sport, do the best you can and head on home."
And for five Americans, head home with the same silver-colored medal they earned in Beijing.
"It's familiar, I guess you could say," Tom said. "But I don't know. I'm happy with what we did. I'm happy with a silver. I have no regrets at all right now."