ATLANTA — “I can’t feel my leg,” she said.
“Shake it off!” her coach screamed. “You gotta go!”
Kerri Strug pushed her foot on the mat and pain shot through her ankle. The crowd was roaring. Music was blasting. The American team was down to its last try in its best chance to win its first-ever Olympic gold in women’s gymnastics.
She had 30 seconds.
“You can do it!” her coach said.
“I will,” Strug said. Then, louder. “I will . . . I will. . . . “
In an instant, she was racing down the runway, her small arms churning like a toy soldier’s on oversized batteries. She hit the board, flipped backward, pushed off the horse and somersaulted in the air. When she landed on the mat, her left leg buckled, and her face became a portrait of suppressed agony. She hopped a weak step, one-footed, held a last, desperate pose for the judges — arms out, try to smile — then fell to the mat and began to crawl.
Call it an Olympic moment, the ultimate act of an athlete’s courage and, perhaps, the ultimate act of a coach’s arrogance. Bela Karolyi, who has taken the youth of so many girls and woven into it near-hypnotic gymnastic skill, would later say, “I thought she had dislocated the ankle after her first vault.” He told her to vault again anyhow, never warning her about physical danger. Did you expect anything less? At the Olympics? With coaches’ futures riding on the line every bit as much as the athletes’?
As another U.S. coach would later put it: “I would go in a cast for a gold medal. Wouldn’t you?”
Well. That question should be posed only to Strug. And when she returned from the hospital, on crutches, the gold medal still around her neck, it was.
Her answer: “Definitely.”
Last in line before
“When I went for that second vault, I just whispered a little prayer,” Strug, the 4-foot-9 daughter of an Arizona heart surgeon, said after the U.S. edged Russia for the gold Tuesday night. “I said, ‘Please God, just get me through this one.’ I’ve done it thousands of times before. I knew we needed it for the gold. And when I started running, the adrenaline just took over. . . .
Well. Had it been taking over all night? Here was a competition full of sweet smiles and pixie poses — as gymnastics nights always are — but also full of toughness. Grit. Clenched teeth. Playing through pain. You know, all the things we celebrate in men.
Only these were not men. They were seven teenage girls, college freshmen down to eighth-graders. Some were already fighting stress fractures and tendinitis. But Tuesday was about proving things, proving that America was more than just Mary Lou Rettonville, proving that the sum of American gymnastics was even greater than the impressive parts.
And in many ways, proving the seven were worthy of history. There was Shannon Miller, 19, who had won every kind of Olympic medal but gold, and Dominique Dawes, also 19, a bronze medalist in Barcelona, trying to become the first black gymnast to capture American Olympic gold, and Amy Chow, 18, trying to become the first Asian American to do the same, and Strug — oh, yes, Strug most of all. Levelheaded, a little bit shy, she had labored in the shadow of Karolyi’s more camera-ready stars for years. She watched Kim Zmeskal zoom past her into the spotlight. She watched the newest pixie, her 14-year-old teammate, Dominique Moceanu, make hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsement contracts, while she was overlooked.
Suddenly, here came Tuesday night, and Strug was center stage. The Americans had entered the competition a whisker behind the Russians in the compulsory scores, but from the opening rotation, there was only one team in the Georgia Dome. All the cheers were for the U.S. girls. All the focus was on them. They shot ahead from their opening event — the uneven bars — and did not look back. Their balance beam routines were better than hoped. Their floor exercises — done mostly to rock ‘n’ roll soundtracks — had the crowd clapping and the judges smiling. They entered the final event, the vault, with a cushy lead.
And then it began to come apart.
Miller, Chow and Jaycie Phelps wobbled on their landings. Moceanu, who had been nerveless to this point — how is it that 14-year-olds feel no pressure?
— suddenly fell back to earth, landing on her rump not once but twice. The crowd gasped. The American coaches believed one more bad score would allow the Russians — doing their traditionally strong floor exercises — to overtake them for the gold.
So it was up to Strug. She had often been last in line. Only now, last was what mattered most.
“Come on, Kerri!” her teammates yelled.
She raced down on her first vault, flipped, somersaulted, and “heard something pop.” She had ripped several ligaments, and suffered a severe, third-degree sprain. She did not know it. Nobody else wanted to know it.
The rest is the stuff of a TV movie.
Now, it’s fair to point out that the Americans may not have needed any more than Strug’s first score. And a more responsible coach — and team — would have had a doctor take a fast look at a numb leg, or at least ask a question before sending a competitor back out injured.
But Strug is not 14. She is 18, going on 19, headed for UCLA. What she did Tuesday night is no different from a college freshman football player’s carrying the ball with a separated shoulder. As Strug said, “I’m an adult. I can make my own decisions.”
And hers will be remembered for years. After that last courageous vault — a 9.712 score — the sold-out crowd erupted in raucous cheers. And moments later, the tiny army of women — Chow, Miller, Dawes, Moceanu, Phelps and Amanda Borden — waved joyously at the crowd, knowing they had won.
Strug was deep in the bowels of the stadium, getting wrapped.
“I want to go out for the medals,” she told Karolyi.
“Kerri,” he said, “even the New York police couldn’t keep me from getting you out there.”
He carried her, and when the time came, her teammates helped her hop onto the podium. The national anthem played and they sang along like schoolchildren. If you weren’t crying, you were pretty much alone.
“Did you feel like a hero when you decided to vault?” someone asked Strug hours later.
“Not really,” she said. “I felt obligated. I mean, it was our team, and it was the gold medal, and we had all worked so hard. Everything was on the line, and I felt like I had to do it, no matter how much it hurt.”
Someone should tell her: That’s what heroes are all about.
Spirit conquers odds, ego gives way to teamwork, reality exceeds the TV script. A group of individually coddled stars, some of whom are already millionaires, pool their talent, stay in a communal house, become friends, and then flip, spin, twist, twirl and fly their into history. Does it get any better?
“I am not taking this medal off,” said Miller.
“I think I might shower in mine,” said Dawes.
“I am crying tears of happiness,” said Moceanu.
“We made history,” said Strug.
It’s a good thing they had those medals around their necks. They were the only things keeping them from flying away.