Brazil defeats US 3-1 for volleyball gold
BEIJING (AP) These Olympics started with tears for the U.S. women's volleyball team, and they ended with tears.
Brazil won its first gold medal in women's volleyball on Saturday, beating the U.S. 3-1 and ending an emotional run by an American team struck by tragedy hours after the opening ceremony.
The U.S. team's sobs at the end, however, weren't about grief. They were about perseverance.
"I looked at the medal around my neck and it's such an accomplishment for this team and the USA and these girls," wing spiker Logan Tom said. "It just brought tears to my eyes, and I'm more than thrilled.
The Brazilians won a tight and tense deciding set in their first Olympic final to win 25-18, 18-25, 25-13, 25-21, and blemish the return of U.S. coach Jenny Lang Ping to her hometown. As a player, Lang led the Chinese team to the gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Brazil finished the Olympic tournament without a loss. China beat Cuba 3-1 earlier in the day for the women's bronze medal.
The Olympics started on a tragic note for the U.S. team when the father of former U.S. player Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman McCutcheon was fatally stabbed Aug. 9 at a popular Beijing tourist site by a man who then committed suicide. Her mother was seriously injured in the attack.
Todd Bachman was also the father-in-law of U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose team will face Brazil Sunday for the gold medal.
Against this backdrop, the Americans embarked on an improbable run to the gold-medal match, where they finally met their match in a talented Brazilian team.
In the final set, Brazil went up 15-13 on Sheilla Castro's spike, but the United States scored three straight points to go ahead. Brazil challenged, but couldn't pull back in front until Marianne Steinbrecher's spike knocked over Tom and made it 21-20.
Brazil scored the last four points and won it when Tom's spike sailed out of bounds.
The U.S. women bound quickly together in a tight hug. Tears in their eyes, they raised their clasped hands upward.
Brazil danced and mugged for the television cameras, draped in Brazilian flags.
"They had to stop our best player," U.S. captain Lindsey Berg said. "She (Tom) is our best player. She's not going to tip. She's going to go up and swing. That's what she did, she got us here and I'm happy she swung."
Brazil, the No. 1-ranked team in the world going in, rolled undefeated through five preliminary pool matches before beating Japan in the quarterfinals and host China, the defending Olympic champions, in the semis. They had not dropped a set coming into Saturday night's final.
The United States went 4-1 in pool play, then defeated second-ranked Italy in the quarterfinals before a stunning three-set upset of former powerhouse Cuba to advance to the final.
"When I saw that last ball going out it was amazing the happiness I felt," said Castro, who is known simply as Sheilla. "After four years we finally have won the gold."
The United States has never won a gold medal in volleyball. It won the silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and a bronze in 1992.
The last time the U.S. men's and women's teams each advanced to the Olympic final was 1984.
The U.S. team was closely watched by the Chinese because of the return of Lang, who was met by thunderous applause on Saturday.
As a player for the Chinese national team, she was known as the Iron Hammer for her powerful spikes. She became a sports icon in China - on the level of Michael Jordan in the United States - for leading the Chinese team to prominence with a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics with a final-match victory over the United States.
Because of her, the U.S. team's matches have been well-attended and fans have stayed late to snap her picture as she leaves the court. Chinese President Hu Jintao attended a preliminary round match between the United States and China, which the Americans won.
After Saturday's match, Lang was noncommittal about returning to the team, saying she was going to take a vacation and spend time with her daughter.
"She's been our leader for four years. She took on a great team with a lot of potential. It was a little rusty in the beginning, but look where she got us," Berg said. "She took us to a silver medal."
Lang was steady in guiding the team after they were shaken by Todd Bachman's death the day after opening ceremonies.
Many on the women's team had played with Bachman McCutcheon in the 2004 Athens Games. Her parents were boosters, often accompanying the team to tournaments.
The two teams responded to the tragedy with small but heartfelt gestures. The men wrote the Bachmans' initials on their shoes. The women penned "Wiz" on their arms and shoulders during matches.
In the end, however, Brazil was too fast and talented for the United States.
Known for its speed, Brazil scored five straight points to go up 15-10 in the first set when Tayyiba Haneef-Park's spike was blocked by Fabiana de Oliveira.
After Danielle Scott-Arruda's spike gave the U.S. a point, the Brazilians went on another five-point run for a 20-11 lead and claimed the set on Paula Pequeno's ace.
Kim Glass' block put the United States ahead 10-5 in the second. Castro faulted a serve and then missed on a spike to give the United States a 20-14 lead, the largest margin to that point.
The U.S. team won the set when Fabiana Claudino tipped Tom's spike and de Oliveira couldn't get to it in time. It was the first time in the Olympic competition that Brazil dropped a set.
Brazil went up 12-6 in the third when Kim Glass couldn't get to Steinbrecher's spike. The Brazilians led by as many as nine points and won it on another Steinbrecher spike that sent both Ogonna Nnamani and Nicole Davis spilling to the court.
"No disappointment," Tom said. "There's no disappointment. If we would have come out today and not fought, I might have a different answer, but we fought our hearts out. So I have no kind of regret. I'm happy with this thing around my neck right now and I will be forever."