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Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Updated: August 11, 2:15 PM ET
Candrea returns to other lifelong love: softball

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- As tears welled up in Mike Candrea's eyes, he slowly removed his glasses. His voice choked up, and the words about his wife came haltingly.

Mike Candrea
Mike and Sue Candrea were supposed to celebrate two special moments at the Games: their 28th anniversary and, hopefully, a gold medal.
"It's tough,'' the coach of the U.S. women's softball team said, wiping his eye. "You know, Aug. 7 was our anniversary.''

Their day of celebration had become yet another day of mourning. Less than a month ago, Mike Candrea buried his wife, Sue, who died from a sudden brain aneurysm. And now, as he readied his gold-medal favorites for the Athens Olympics, Candrea remembered the woman who made his life better in so many ways.

"She allowed me to pursue my dreams,'' Candrea said Tuesday at a news conference. "She was the one who kind of kept me in check, never let my head get too swollen. ... She was my wife, my friend. You don't realize how much you miss someone until they're not there.''

For nearly three decades, Sue Candrea was there for her husband, handling the checkbook and running their home as he turned the Arizona softball program into a six-time NCAA champion. Sports was a constant; their wedding date paid homage to Mike's favorite baseball player, Mickey Mantle.

"The backbone of our family,'' her son, Mikel, said in a eulogy. If Mike was in the dugout, she was generally nearby in the stands.

The couple was to mark their 28th anniversary in Athens, where Candrea -- who took over as national team coach two years ago -- would go for a gold medal. Two special moments at a single Summer Games.

Sue's dedication prompted her retirement earlier this year. She gave up her accounting job to travel with her husband and his team. They were on a pre-Olympic "Aiming for Athens'' tour, with a stop in Stevens Point, Wis., when Sue fell ill while awaiting a July 16 flight to Connecticut.

The 49-year-old was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, but died two days later.

"This was a bolt of lightning out of the sky,'' Candrea said. "One morning, she's walking on the treadmill. And the next moment, she's gone.''

Candrea was overwhelmed by the tragedy, but also by the response. He was flooded with calls from friends, with flowers from the Greek and Canadian teams. The funeral drew hundreds of mourners, including current Olympian Jennie Finch and a host of Candrea's past players.

Once the initial shock subsided, Candrea was faced with a decision: Would he go to Athens? The coach spoke with his children and his mother-in-law, who each offered the same opinion: "You belong on that field in Athens,'' Candrea said.

Candrea, 48, had an emotional reunion with his softball players in Greece, where their support convinced him that coaching was the right decision.

"I'm glad I have this group in my life right now, because they're helping me get through this,'' he said. "Then again, this is my extended family. It's been a real therapy for me to come here.''

The Americans, two-time defending gold medalists, have dedicated their effort to Sue's memory. "Whatever it takes to get that medal,'' said Finch, who played for Candrea at Arizona.

Before the Aug. 14 opener, the Candrea children -- 24-year-old Mikel and 21-year-old Michelle -- will arrive to cheer their father. Candrea is certain that he has made the right choice, and looks forward to the challenge.

"I just know Sue will be with me,'' he said. "This is what she would want me to do. I'm just going to forge ahead."