As much as he understands it's a legitimate part of his story, Hugh McCutcheon hates that he's become defined by the tragedy that invaded his world at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Nearly four years on from a situation he refers to as "the best of times and the worst of times", he just wants to move on.
If only. As much as this 42-year- old New Zealander would love us all to concentrate on the cheers, not the tears, the world remains fascinated by the tragic element of his story as much as the triumphant note that followed. So while McCutcheon is intent on avoiding a subject that's still incredibly hard for him to talk about, it reverberates throughout our interview.
Here's the backstory in a snapshot. McCutcheon, with all due respect to Warren Gatland, may well be New Zealand's most successful coaching export. He's turned a respectable career as a journeyman professional volleyball player into a stellar one as head coach in the United States national programme.
He guided the USA men to their first Olympic gold medal in 20 years in Beijing, and now the shaven-headed Kiwi has the American women firmly established as the No 1 side in the world heading into London. He is clearly a man with the Midas touch in a sport that's a big deal at Olympic time.
But it was in Beijing where McCutcheon went from a back- page to a front-page story; where his family's life got turned on its head by a random act of lunacy. His father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was murdered in a knife attack at a popular tourist spot in the city and his mother-in-law Barbara also suffered serious stab wounds. McCutcheon's wife, Elisabeth, who played for USA at the 2004 Games, witnessed the incident.
There are no words to describe the impact of such a senseless act of violence on one family. Or as McCutcheon famously said in the aftermath: "There is no page in the book of life that tells you how to be a gold medal winner and have your father-in-law murdered." But it is now part of sporting folklore that McCutcheon left the team mid- campaign to attend to his family's needs, and then returned to lead the Americans to the most emotional of gold medals.
"I'm very proud of the team and the way we played, " he says from USA Volleyball's California headquarters. "People do the team a disservice when they want to talk about the personal side of things kind of galvanising the group. Here was a team able to be at their best in spite of that circumstance, not because of it.
"This event happened, it was terrible and tragic, but people had put four, some 12 years of their lives into reaching the mountaintop in our sport. That's where the focus should be and even though the media are still interested in revisiting that topic, again it does a disservice to what this group of women have been doing the last three years. We're ranked No 1 in the world and to somehow look back now is not where the focus should be."
But this is a smart guy - he has a masters in exercise science and an MBA - and he gets the fascination, even if he is decidedly suspect about what he calls a "motive of sensationalism".
"That's part of what we're trying to get away from, " he says. "Yeah it did happen and it sucked, no question, but we're dealing with it, and at some point if we get to talk about it down the road, great, but I'm not even sure we'll ever get there.
"Just know it was like nothing I ever could have imagined. What you have to do is compartmentalise all these aspects. I'd have to go through a little routine so, when I walked in the door for practice or a game, I was giving it everything I had for that two hours. Then, once I was done, it was about dealing with the 10 phone calls and 50 text messages I'd just got."
You probe just a little further and ask this Cantabrian - he went to Shirley Boys, and then Canterbury University, and his mum Milly still lives in Christchurch - about why he felt the need to return to his team in Beijing.
His answer goes a long way to encapsulating a mindset that's seen him become America's most revered volleyball coach. "Once the family stuff got squared away, everyone was safe and there was nothing more I could do, they encouraged me to finish this. Our team had gone through a lot of ups and downs along this journey and were on the cusp of concluding it. We were playing some great volleyball and I just felt my personal stuff was my personal stuff, and even though it sure as hell was tempting to get on that plane and go home, the right thing to do was to get back to my job and lead this team."
Or as he also put it, "If I didn't finish it, it's another way the bad guy wins again."
For McCutcheon, returning to his guys was a way to get back to "a sense of normalcy". He had felt incredible pride about the team's performances in his absence - he missed three games all told - and when he finally returned he told each player individually if they had any questions that was their time to ask, "because from here on we're not going to talk about it. We got whatever closure we needed in the short term".
In the gold medal match against Brazil it all came to a head. At 24-22 in the fourth set he realised they would have a chance to side out for the gold medal. "My heartrate went from about 60 to 180. I'd never experienced anything like it. I turned away and took a couple of deep breaths because I'm not going to freak out on the sideline."
Then came the moment. Clay Stanley makes the winning kill, and suddenly McCutcheon is running around hugging people. "It was over, we'd done it. Inevitably some of that emotion came to the forefront because those filters could finally be put down. I was getting emotional, so went into a corridor, and took a moment to set myself straight. Then I got out there and had to do an interview with NBC."
McCutcheon still recalls with fondness his early days in New Zealand, coming through the schoolboy ranks with the likes of Simon Vesty, Grant and Craig Waller and Mike Akkerman, and teaming with national team regulars like Gilbert Enoka, Mike Dudson, Mark Termeer and Tony Natapu.
Eventually he snared a scholarship at Brigham Young University in the US, and then played professionally in Finland and Japan. "As much as I loved the game, I just wasn't enjoying the life of a sort of roaming international gun for hire, " he reflects. That saw him head back to BYU to undertake his masters, which in turn opened up his first coaching experience.
Success as an assistant at BYU eventually saw McCutcheon invited, in 1999, into the USA national programme, first at youth level and then finally with the senior men. The rest, as they say, is history. Now he's about to shoot for a second gold medal, and a first with the USA women, who have only ever won two silvers at the Olympics. He's also recently accepted a position as head coach of the University of Minnesota women's team, which he'll step into after London.
That, he says, is about putting family first. He and Elisabeth have a 2-year-old son Andrew and 6-week- old daughter Annika, and after so long in a job that sees him on the road up to 150 days a year, "I don't want to raise my kids on Skype".
But first there's London. His in- form US women have a good shot at the gold, he reckons. "I like our team, I like our preparation, and as we get in the home stretch we're still getting better which is nice. I can't control what's going on in Brazil's gym or Russia's gym, but I know we're doing everything we can, and I get a little peace from that."
He says he feels no pressure to deliver another gold, but trusts the hard work of himself and his players will put them in a position to do it if they’re good enough. In a funny sort of way McCutcheon believes his New Zealand background has enabled him to be the coach he is. "I think we're really good at working together and figuring out how to make those around you better. We're kind of on our own down there, and there's a lot of collaboration and a really good 'let's figure it out' attitude.
"In the US you learn about competition because you're in the capital of capitalism here, everyone's fighting and scrapping at everything they're doing. When that competition is pure and you figure out how to embrace that with the notion of team, it's one of the things I feel organically has been a strength for me."
London, of course, will bring back memories, and more questions about the events of 2008. But this strapping Kiwi has a resilience about him - when he was 14 his father died of cancer a week after being diagnosed - that you know will get him through what awaits.
"Part of being able to deal with tough times is being able to own them, and not just putting them down the bottom of your belly and letting it fester, " he says. "If you've got stuff to deal with, you just deal with it and get on."
“The mindset for London is we’ll go do the best we can to win. People ask me about my personal perspective. Honestly I haven’t gone there. I’ll get there, experience it, and what will happen, will happen.”
I ask about his wife, affectionately known as Wiz. He pauses a moment. His decision to take the job in Minnesota will soon restore her to her home state, alongside her mother and two older sisters. Her family unit complete, as their new one starts out..
“She’s a great mum,” says McCutcheon. “Certainly having a couple of kids, obviously we get to look forward now instead of looking back. So that’s a good place to be.”
Moving on. Looking forward. For McCutcheon it’s a mantra he abides by, on and off the volleyball court.
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|The mindset for London is we’ll go do the best we can to win. People ask me about my personal perspective. Honestly I haven’t gone there. I’ll get there, experience it, and what will happen, will happen.|
USA men’s coach
Beijing 2008 Olympic Games gold medal
2008 FIVB Volleyball World League gold medal
USA women’s coach
2010, 2011, 2012 FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix gold medals