He grieved his wife's death, now U.S. softball coach must carry on

Mike Candrea says he wanted to return to Stevens Point to thank the strangers who became friends. Cory Dellenbach for ESPN.com

MOSINEE, Wis. -- The Central Wisconsin Airport is no place to say goodbye. It is cozy and cheesy with speckled carpet and an outdated gift shop that advertises polka fests. Twenty-nine steps separate the parking lot from the front door. Like many stops in the Northwoods, it is frozen in time. Meet you inside, Mike Candrea told his wife somewhere in the parking lot. She was holding a book and an Egg McMuffin. It was random and ordinary, just like every day that summer.

She never complained. Not through 5,000 miles in a bus, nor 28 years of distractions. No, Sue Candrea, at her core, was a coach's wife. She watched the children while Mike coached other people's kids. She always said good morning, always took care of the little things, always blended in. Walk another 30 steps through the glass doors, past the security checkpoint, and that's where her life, essentially, ended.

The U.S. Olympic softball team won't go to this place. Players can crush a yellow blur; they can leave every team in the world in a tiny pile of dirt. But on this trip to central Wisconsin for Tuesday night's game, they came and left by bus. Four years ago, during a similar breakneck Summer Olympics tour stop in Stevens Point, Wis., Candrea lost his wife to a brain aneurysm.

She ate cheese curds and sat in the stands at Copps Field the night before she collapsed, making fast friends with pitcher Cat Osterman's aunt. Sue Candrea had a knack for remembering every stranger's name. Twenty-four hours later, she was clinging to life with a blood-filled bulge the size of a half-dollar in her brain.

"At first, I was mad at the world," says Mike Candrea. "I was saying, 'Why?' There weren't any signs or symptoms. This was out of the blue. I still felt like we were going to go home, you know?"

They met in college, had a son, Mikel, and a daughter, Michelle, and lived in Casa Grande, Ariz., 72 miles from the University of Arizona campus. Long commutes home from work gave Mike Candrea plenty of time to think. He is one of the brightest minds in college softball and has won eight national championships in Tucson.

Taking a leave of absence from Arizona to coach the Olympic team seemed like a natural progression for Candrea. And with his kids finally grown and out of the nest -- save for a few lingering bills -- Candrea wanted his wife to accompany him on their road to Athens in 2004.

It was not like signing on to an ordinary Olympic tour. The softball team spends the entire summer on the road in a cramped group bonding session. Many of its stops are in places that would inspire John Cougar Mellencamp songs. Topeka, Kan., Normal, Ill., Stevens Point, Wis. The players are stuck together in 12-by-16 hotel rooms, where lines of personal space are crossed and spats come and go over long stretches of highway.

"We are, basically, 15 sisters traveling," Osterman says. "It's sisterly love and sisterly hate sometimes."

Because Candrea recruited all of them at some point, he has known these players since they were teenagers. So had his wife. When slugger Stacey Nuveman launched her second home run against Arizona in a college game, Sue tracked down Mike after the game, while the teams were still shaking hands.

"What were you thinking, throwing another changeup?" she said.

But usually, she was easygoing and low-maintenance, content with a book and a good conversation.

On one trip, just before the Fourth of July, she stopped at a Target and made gift bags for all the players. The mornings were her time, and she'd take walks and do things alone. Candrea wondered after she died whether her cheery demeanor had masked any symptoms of the aneurysm. She'd take aspirin a lot but never complained of headaches. Nearly every morning, but definitely every night, Candrea told her he loved her. He said it again at the hospital.

"I tell a lot of coaches to make sure you tell people that you love them and you love them every day," Candrea says. "Don't wait. I guess one of the biggest fears when you lose someone you dearly love is that you don't have time to tell them something, and I never wanted to be that way.

"So there was nothing, really, that I hadn't said. I said it every day."

Mike Disher was at the ballpark when his phone rang. It was Julie Bartel, the media contact for USA Softball. She told Disher that Sue Candrea had just been rushed to the hospital and Candrea was with her in the ambulance. Disher is the Stevens Point softball president, the only person Bartel could think of as the team boarded its plane for the final stop of the tour. Could he meet Candrea at the hospital?

They had known each other in passing, but now Disher was sitting in a waiting room with the coach who was a hero to so many people in softball, waiting to hear from the doctors.

"She'll come out of this thing OK," Disher said.

They tried to tell themselves that it wasn't anything serious. Sue was 49 and, from all appearances, very healthy. Maybe it was a bee sting. Does she have allergies?

Twenty minutes turned to five hours, and Disher went to get Candrea food in between "guy talk" about golf and bad habits and, of course, softball. As the day wore on, the news got progressively grim. Disher went to the airport to pick up Candrea's kids and mother-in-law. At 11 p.m., he went home because he knew Candrea was in good hands. His family was there.

"Outside of my brother passing away three weeks ago, that was probably the hardest thing I've had to do in my life," Disher says, "to be there with a man so much in love with a woman, then starting to understand she's not going to make it …

"It's tough getting back in the saddle when you're used to seeing that person's face and hearing that person's voice."

Sue died two days after she collapsed. It was a couple of weeks before the Olympics. Everyone wondered whether Candrea would make it to Athens. Nobody knew exactly what was going on inside when he stoically led the Americans to the gold medal. Behind the sunglasses and thick mustache, his weathered face rarely changes.

He says it's like living in a submarine from February to August, changing backdrops but focusing on one thing. And after every long journey, no matter what frame of mind, a period of depression sets in.

"Now I was going back to reality, going back to life and an empty house," he says.

"The thing you realize when you're alone, at least I did, was that the one great thing about life is having someone to share your ups and downs with every day."

The long ride home to an empty place was wearing on him, so he sold his house in Casa Grande and moved to Tucson. He'd leaned on God -- Candrea is a devout Catholic -- to make sense of what happened.

There was no blueprint for grieving. He worried about how his kids would handle everything.

"It's very tough on kids not having a mom," Candrea says. "I think it's tougher not having a mom than not having a father. I don't know [why]. It's probably just a different nurturing of your kids."

Candrea didn't want to go to a Christmas party a former player was throwing, but when you move on -- or at least try to -- you force yourself to get out and do things. They'd laugh about it later, that Tina Tilton didn't want to be there, either. She was walking in late, around 9:30 p.m., when Candrea was walking out. He turned back around when he saw her.

When he met Tina in late 2005, they immediately clicked. She knew nothing, really, about softball. But they have a lot in common. Both have two kids, both like people, and both are incredibly organized. They say the same thing at the same time sometimes.

They married in December 2006, not wanting to wait until after Beijing.

"It wasn't like I was out looking," Candrea says. "I think the good Lord put Tina and I together."

Tina took time off from a job in real estate to be on the 45-city, 43,522-mile tour. Sometimes, she feels claustrophobic. She doesn't want to get in anyone's way. Each person has a place on the bus, and Tina Candrea sits in the front, shoulders touching her husband's, for six to eight hours at a time.

She asked him whether he wanted her to miss any stops on the tour. She asked him about Stevens Point.

"I asked him … 'Would you rather have some time to deal with this? Do you want me to stay home?'" Tina says. "He said, 'Absolutely not.' He has his own way of dealing with this, and he wanted me here with him."

The team arrived in Stevens Point on Sunday night, two days before their game with the Midwest all-stars. Disher made sure they weren't booked in the same hotel as in 2004. On Monday, Tina Candrea went to get a pedicure while her husband watched the U.S. Open. Fascinated by Tiger Woods' ability to fight through a knee injury -- and three days of adversity -- Candrea watched it twice.

Cars line up and down Second Avenue in Stevens Point by 5:30 on Tuesday night, two hours before the Olympic team plays. A man on the speakers tells people in the outfield bleachers to scoot together so more people can cram in. The place is a sellout, again, even though most of the crowd knows the eventual outcome.

The Olympians are patient. They wait for the right pitches, even when the score is 14-0.

The Olympians are fiercely competitive. They challenge an umpire's call in a meaningless exhibition game.

The Olympians are relentless. The score is 20-0 in the sixth inning when the all-stars get a freebie runner on third base just to make things interesting. The runner takes a lead and is quickly thrown out by the catcher. She's allowed to go back, and the out is erased off the board, leading to the 20-1 finish.

Candrea, who's been perched on his white bucket for much of the night, walks onto the field, where both teams are called to come together in a circle. It is not for a tribute to Sue Candrea. It is to mug for pictures that will go in the all-stars' scrapbooks. Candrea wanted it to be a normal night, and the only visible sign that anything was different was the black armband outfielder Kelly Kretschman wore during the game. Team USA had them in Athens, and Kretschman has kept it in her bat bag since.

For weeks, it seems, Candrea has been dreading this day. He's asked why he came back to the place where undoubtedly the worst thing in his life happened in a few seconds. He says he can't blame Wisconsin for an aneurysm. He wanted to thank the strangers who became friends. Maybe, the softball coach who has fearlessly stared down so many opponents wanted to confront this life-changing stop in the woods.

Under a full moon, the Olympians hang near the outfield gate, signing autographs while chilly young girls shiver. Candrea walks to the dugout and finds Tina. He kisses her. The tour rolls on.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.