I have endured through eight World Olympics. Eight doesn’t sound like a lot compared to all the years that have passed in between, but eight is plenty for a memory to stock pile snapshots of decorated champions and their medals. Images of athletes who persevered against all odds, underdogs who overcame and turned up on top, and those who no one once knew suddenly became the person everyone wanted to know, as they proudly stood on a podium, their national anthem blasting in the background. As the 2012 Summer Olympics in London continues to march on, there are two people in particular that always come to mind when I see the colors of many countries represented by oversized rings and bound by the games.
This man, Béla Károlyi.
And, this girl, Kerri Strug.
I would love to forget the man, but I’ll never forget the girl, and her courageous performance at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. My palms sweat and my mascara runs just thinking about it.
You all remember, don’t you? The United States had never won a coveted gold medal in the Women’s Team Competition EVER, and in 1996 they had a chance, a real shot. I think everyone would agree their road to victory was paved with heartache and magic, so much so, that you had to keep asking yourself, “Is this real or is this a well written made for TV movie?”.
Kerri Strug was the smallest and one of the least talked about gymnasts on the team. Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Dominique Moceanu were all fan favorites. Those three girls all had major followings, but Kerri Strug could not compare. They were all Princesses, and Kerri was Cinderella before the glass slipper or the gold medal. Oh, how a twist of fate, or a twist of the ole ankle, can turn a prince into a frog, or a mediocre gymnast into a brazen olympian.
Like every good fairytale it all comes down to the ending, doesn’t it? Close calls and nears misses leave us hanging on and barley breathing, and the women’s olympic team competition gave us the same feel. The gold medal hung in the balance, teetering over the final rotation, on the final day of the team competition, July 23, 1996.
The Russians entered the team competition with a very narrow lead, but by the final rotation the U.S. had surpassed the Russians and held a commanding lead. The only way the Russians could take the gold from the U.S. at this point was if the U.S. team collapsed. And, they began to do just that.
The russians were on the floor tumbling, leaping, jumping and dancing to the sound of music. The Americans were one by one running toward the vault, springing into the air, and landing sloppy with steps and hops. Four of the Americans failed to land without blemish and then Strug’s teammate Dominique Moceanu not only stepped and hopped, she fell twice, registering a very poor score. Strug was the last to tackle the vault, and the gold medal depended on her.
Strug’s first attempt at the vault ended with uncertainty for the U.S. Olympic team. Kerri under-rotated the landing and damaged her ankle in the process. She walked away from the landing zone limping. The questions followed. Could she go again? Did she need to go again? Would she go again?
I’ll never forget the look on her face. You could see her pain, regardless of the angle. We watched her waiver. Do we need this, she asked? Not ready to forfeit, but not ready to go again. She hesitated and her coach did not. “Kerri, we need you to go one more time! We need you one more time for the Gold. You can do it, you better do it,” he screamed. You could see the wheels turning and her countenance change. She believed him. The fear that held her captive had been loosed. She would go, again, pushing past the pain and an ankle no longer the same. She dug deep and tackled the vault one more time. One more time to prove she could. One more time for her teammates. One more time, to take home the Gold.
We all held our breath and she took off in a sprint toward the vault. Her little legs, running, running, toward her fate. Her hands meet the vault and she propelled in the air, twisting and turning, and like all things that go up, she came down. The whole world was holding their breath as her feet made contact with the ground. She landed on both, briefly, and then remained standing on one. She looked like a little girl playing a game of hopscotch instead of a fierce Olympian. She hobbled around, trying to make it off the mat alone, and then she collapsed. God love, she collapsed. She was carried to a stretcher and in the words of the famous announcer that day, “Kerri Strug was hurt. She was hurt badly.”
Her last vault was enough. Turns out she didn’t even need to go again after the results came in from the Russians. The americans would have won gold, regardless of Kerri facing the vault twice. I felt a tremendous amount of sadness after hearing that bit of information. Would Kerri’s injury not have been as severe if she had stopped after the first vault? Would she have had a chance to go on and compete in the individual all-around competition and event finals instead of someone taking her rightful place? Would that second vault really have been her last? I guess we will never know, but without her second vault, the whole world would have never gotten the chance to see what it takes to be a real winner; an olympic sized heart! That my friends is more valuable than Gold!
Bela carrying Strug to the podium to receive her gold medal