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A gold medal for his faith
By Bruce Wawrzyniak/Catholic Sports Association
Mike Candrea speaks to the media in Beijing, China. Photo courtesy of ASA/USA Softball.
Mike Candrea speaks to the media in Beijing, China. Photo courtesy of ASA/USA Softball.

.- When coaches and athletes are preparing to head to the Olympic Games, they certainly long for the thrill of victory and don’t even want to consider the agony of defeat. But what of the challenge of even going to the Olympics, period, when an immediate family member dies in the final weeks before the Games?

That was the case for current University of Arizona women’s softball head coach Mike Candrea, who held that same position with Team USA for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. Just prior to his leading the Americans on the world’s stage just over eight years ago, his wife, Sue, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.

“I think your first inclination is ‘why me?’,” he says now. 

“Everyone has that thought when those things happen in your life. The thing that helped me understand things was, with my faith, I go back to my mom being the one that gave me that foundation early in life, so I always had it, but there are times when your  profession gets in the way of having that balance in your life. I thought there were times when your life revolved around whether you won a championship or not… When you get thrown a curve ball at 49 years old and don’t know the color of your checkbook or what your kids need you wake up and realize that everything doesn’t revolve around those championships. So I found that having a balance between my profession and my faith gave me a better balance and made me a better coach, a better person, and a better father, and you have to put your faith in God and we’ll all be together again.”

It also helped him through other tragedies.

“I do talk about my trials and tribulations in life, having lost a (softball) player at 21 years old to diabetes, and we’d lost a child early in life.  After (the latter) I thought I was prepared for anything that’d come my way.  If that hadn’t happened I don’t know how I’d have reacted (when Sue died).  We lost a three-week old and a nephew at three years old.  That was probably the time in my life that woke me up a bit and made sure that I grabbed on to the things we need to (in order) to get through tough times in life.”

Now it’s the start of 2013 and not only is Candrea still having success as a high-profile softball coach, but, he re-married and didn’t leave his faith behind once he got through his first wife’s passing.

“I say this quite frequently that the good Lord was looking out for me to unite me with Tina.  The one common thread we had was the same faith.  I remember going to Ash Wednesday Mass with her, and seeing her commitment to the Catholic faith sure comforted me.  We’ve been able to share that on a daily and weekly basis together.  It has got to be a big part of your life. Balance between family, spirit, and professional life brings happiness.  We all need to kind of slow things down and realize what’s important and I definitely live everyday like it’s my last.”

Strong words from obviously a strong Catholic. While Candrea’s strength comes from the Lord, he knows its roots, however.

“From a very young age, my mom had me on Saturday in catechism class and Sunday at Mass - no ifs, ands, or buts. Then going to Louisiana to see my grandparents, and getting up at 4 a.m. for 6 a.m. Mass. I’ve been blessed to have great role models in my life with my family in New York, New Orleans, and Phoenix. I remember visiting my dad’s sisters and there was a church at the end of the street where they said the mass in Italian and Fr. Julius asked me to be an altar boy and I was afraid I’d mess things up, but I did it. In Casa Grande I had Msgr. Ross who was getting up in age and was having trouble seeing at night so I’d pick him up and take him to the Knights of Columbus meetings.”

As a result, there comes a sense of responsibility to pass this down to the next generation, which Candrea found in a wake-up call from his son.

“In 1994 we were getting ready for the Olympics in Atlanta. I was (Team USA Coach) Ralph Raymond’s assistant and was in St. Johns, Newfoundland (Canada), for the world championship. It was a small dorm and I’d just won a (college) championship and now was with the top team in the world, feeling on top of the world, but I came home and instead of welcoming me my son asked me if we could talk.  He wanted me to quit so I could watch him play baseball, so I needed to look at my plans.  So I dropped out of the USA Softball coaching pool and was with him the next three years, and that’s when I really made the commitment to there being more in life than wins and losses.”

Now Coach Candrea is entering his 28th season as the head coach of the Wildcats, with eight national titles and 1,310 career wins under his belt. And the first place finish at the Olympics that resulted in Sports Illustrated calling the U.S. women’s softball team ‘The Real Dream Team’ on the cover of a 2004 issue.

“I think it definitely was right up there,” Candrea says, when asked if leading the Americans to the top in Athens was his crowning achievement. “It’s hard to say one is more special than another.  Anytime you can take a team and reach your ultimate goal, whether it’s a national championship or, for a high school coach, a state championship, it’s a good feeling and something you don’t forget.  But the 2004 Games because of the circumstances in my personal life was a strong moment that I’ll remember forever and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why it will always have a fond place in my heart.”

Asked about scripture passage, he says, “The one that I’ve become fond of is 1 Corinthians 16:13 (‘Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong’). We used it during Sue’s services and my dad’s, and Julie (the aforementioned player who died at age 21) liked it.  It really was a great way to connect everything.”

And it’s a good road map for how Mike Candrea, husband, father, son, and coach, continues to live each day – like it’s his last.

Posted with permission from the Catholic Sports Association, an organization dedicated to highlighting Catholic sports professionals and enriching junior high and high school student-athletes with Catholic sports articles, conferences, a Web series, and other programs.


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