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This dream no longer to be shared

Published August 15, 2004

ATHENS - In a darkened room, a videotape plays. A man watches engrossed, happy to be lost in his work.

Quietly the minutes pass until, out of nowhere, she appears. Disguised as a face in the crowd, unexpectedly flashing by on screen.

And for just that moment, Sue Candrea is alive again.

These are strange days for Mike Candrea. At the pinnacle of a career and the crossroads of a life. The USA softball game against Italy on Saturday was his first as Olympic coach. It was also his first as a widower.

It was just a few weeks ago that Candrea's wife passed away unexpectedly. One minute she was talking with players, placing her McDonald's order in a Wisconsin airport. The next, she was motionless in her husband's arms.

They said it was a brain aneurysm. Candrea called it a lightning bolt.

In a matter of minutes, it seems, his life changed. The coach who always seemed to win was dealing with his greatest loss. He flew home to Arizona to bury Sue and, days later, flew to Greece to prepare for the Olympics.

It was while scouting Italy, in preparation for the USA's 7-0 victory in Saturday's tournament opener, that Candrea came across the televised image of his wife in the background. Concerned it might upset the team, USA officials edited Sue from the tape before it was shown to players.

Memories, thank goodness, are not so easily erased.

"She was my wife, my friend," Candrea said. "You don't realize how much you miss someone until they're not there."

Sue Candrea was 49 and seemingly growing younger all the time. Upbeat and personable, she was the balance to Mike's intensity. She would put together gift baskets of lotions and perfumes for the players. She always made sure there was a fresh movie for the team to watch on long bus trips.

"She was this strong, energetic, bubbly person who did everything she could to support her husband. And he did the same for her," said USF coach Ken Eriksen, who is assisting Candrea with the Olympic team.

"They complemented each other so well."

Theirs was more than a marriage. It was a partnership. When Mike was hired as Arizona's softball coach, Sue was working as an accountant in Casa Grande, Ariz. Instead of asking her to quit, Mike made the 150-mile roundtrip commute to Tucson. That went on for 18 years and six NCAA championships.

It wasn't until this year, in anticipation of the Olympics, that Sue quit her job. Having raised their son and daughter, she was excited to join Mike and the team on a 53-game Aiming for Athens tour.

They were 52 games into the tour when Sue collapsed.

"I think they were the best six months of her life," USA pitcher Lisa Fernandez said. "For so many years she had to share Mike with softball, with all the traveling and time he put in. I think these six months were a real bonding experience for them. She had him to herself 20 hours a day."

The days now seem longer. The nights can be interminable. The hardest part, Candrea said, was returning alone to their home in Casa Grande. Realizing it wasn't the paintings on the walls or the trees in the yard that gave it life.

His son Mikel and daughter Michelle urged him to get out of Arizona and join the team in Greece. His mother-in-law said Sue would have demanded it.

So he arrived, a few days after the team, and immersed himself in the job. He watched tapes, he ran practices, he tried to do everything according to plan. Still, Candrea admits to moments of doubt and pain.

After all, what is a dream if it can not be shared?

Walking into the dugout before Saturday's game, Candrea said, was an emotional experience. But once the game began he began to feel more calm. Maybe even more at home.

"There are moments, there are times," Fernandez said. "I sit up front with him on the bus and you know that there are times when his mind wanders. But this man has incredible strength.

"As unselfish as he is, he is probably staying stronger for us. He knows what kind of impact it would have on the team if he broke."

Soon after his arrival Candrea gathered his players and thanked them for their kindness. He also told them these Games were not about Sue and Mike Candrea. These players had worked their entire lives for this moment and they should want to win for themselves, and not for Sue's memory.

It was an emotional speech. Eloquent too. And it has had little impact.

When the players took the field Saturday they all wore wristbands with Sue's initials printed on them.

Their lockers also held a message from Sue. A three-word command she had written with the last goodie bag she had made for them.

Go for gold.

In a way, the scouting report was true. The videotape did not lie.

Sue Candrea is still around. She's just somewhere in the background.

[Last modified August 15, 2004, 00:06:16]

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