What are little girls made of? They come to the Olympics with their teddy bears, their wide-open faces, giddy in their orthodontic adolescence, and then, with a frightening suddenness, morph into creatures of cold desire.
Take American gymnast Kerri Strug. She was 18, true, but at 4'9", 87 pounds, and with a naturally receding personality, her chemical composition seemed to be entirely sugar, spice, everything nice. "She is just a little girl," said her coach, Bela Karolyi, "who was never the roughest, toughest girl, always a little shy, always standing behind someone else."
And now, in the final rotation of the team competition, her more famous teammates had turned certain victory into a looming loss, with only Strug left to compete in the vault. Shannon Miller had taken a short hop on her landing; Dominique Moceanu had crashed on her two tries. Karolyi's quick math told him Strug needed at least a 9.6 to hold off the Russians.
And then Strug, too, met with this contagious calamity. On her first vault, she landed on her heels, staggered back, crashed. But the blown vault was the least of her problems. Her left ankle had rolled over during the landing"I heard something snap," she said laterleaving her with a numb leg. "Shake it out," Karolyi yelled. Still just a little girl, she asked, "Do I have to do this again?" She didn't have to ask, but she did; she knew she absolutely must.
On her second vault, Strug raced down the runway, soared over the vaulting horse and, against all instinct, landed full-on, a horrible grimace spreading across her face. She hopped twice on one foot, raised her arms to complete the vault and collapsed to the mat.
As it turned out, Karolyi's math was wrong. The U.S. women's team would have pocketed its first gold medal without Strug's 9.712 score. But we all understood that her score was beside the point. The beauty of her vault lay in the fact that she had done it.
"I could never predict this scenario," Karolyi said afterward. "She is so little. She is not a fighter like the others." At the end of the evening he had to carry her to the medal podium, cradling her, once more a little girl, in his arms.
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