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Profile in Courage
E.M. Swift
August 05, 1996
In a competition marked by drama, emotion and, finally, heroism, the American women won their first team gold medal, defeating the talented Russians
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August 05, 1996

Profile In Courage

In a competition marked by drama, emotion and, finally, heroism, the American women won their first team gold medal, defeating the talented Russians

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Jaycie Phelps got the U.S. off to a spectacular start on the uneven bars with a nearly flawless routine, which earned a 9.787, and suddenly the Georgia Dome began to sound like the football stadium it is. From the uppermost tiers, whence the gymnasts looked like tumbling kernels of rice, chants of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" reverberated with annoying persistence. As one American woman after another stuck her dismount, the thunderous roars of 32,000 voices threatened to blow the waiflike Romanians off the beam. Strug equaled Phelps's mark on the uneven bars, Moceanu bettered it with a 9.812, Amy Chow weighed in with a 9.837, Miller matched Phelps's and Strug's score, and Dawes, the top U.S. overall scorer for the night, topped out the rotation with a spectacular 9.850.

In one round the U.S. had picked up nearly half a point on the Russians and taken a lead it continued to extend through the floor exercise and the beam. With one apparatus left—the vault—the U.S. led second-place Russia by .897, a commanding enough margin that several of the Russian gymnasts, apparently conceding defeat before the start of the floor exercise, broke down in tears.

Leads, however, as both Miller and Dawes discovered later in the week during the individual all-around competition, can evaporate in a heartbeat, and after Moceanu registered only a 9.20 on the best of her two vaults, the gold was once again up for grabs. By Strug's own estimation, she hadn't missed her vault—called a 1½ twisting Yurchenko—in practice or competition in at least three months. "She is the one who can do it anytime, anywhere," says Bela. "But seeing [Moceanu's] two falls, and knowing how important it was, she kind of dove at the vault and hit it at too flat a trajectory, which killed her momentum. You need more of an arc."

The most surprised person in the Georgia Dome when Strug found herself sitting down at the end of her vault was Strug. "My first thought was, How could you do that?" she says. "Maybe I lost my concentration worrying about things I shouldn't have been worrying about. I heard a crack in my ankle, but you hear a lot of cracks in gymnastics. Then I tried to stand up, and I realized something was really wrong. I couldn't feel my leg. I kept thinking with each step it would go away, but it didn't. Bela was saying, 'You can do it. Shake it out.' I kept saying, 'There's .something wrong with me.' But there wasn't time to do anything about it. You only have 30 seconds between vaults. So I said a little prayer: Please, Lord, help me out here."

The funny thing was, Strug had never been touted as one of Bela's fearless little girls with the heart of a lion. She was the quiet, dependable understudy. "Her basic personality was not that aggressive," Bela says. "I always had to handle her as a baby. That's what we called her, the Baby, because she was always the youngest. Even when I was angry at the group and threw everyone into the same pot of criticism, she had to be protected with 'except for Kerri.' And she has not a high tolerance for pain. She was never the roughest or toughest girl."

So the gold medal now rested on the shoulders—no, on the sprained left ankle—of the Baby. Strug is, in fact, the baby of her family, six years younger than her brother, Kevin, and nine years younger than her sister, Lisa, and she admits to being spoiled by her parents, Burt, a heart surgeon in Tucson, and Melanie, a homemaker. But if she is a baby, she's an extraordinarily willful one. "I could see she was hurt," says Melanie, "and as a parent, I'd have said, 'Don't do the vault.' But knowing Kerri, you couldn't have stopped her unless you'd dragged her off."

Kerri had been drawn to gymnastics since she was a toddler. Burt remembers watching her tumble around the living room and asking her to "please walk on your feet. You're always traveling upside down."

Lisa is a former gymnast who in 1983 trained in the Karolyis' gym with a certain unknown named Mary Lou Retton. You can guess the rest. Kerri wanted to do everything her older sister did. She was coached from age six by Jim Gault, the coach at the University of Arizona, and Kerri became a fixture around Gault's college teams. Try this, the older girls would say, and Kerri would suddenly have learned a new skill. "I saw how in college everything was team oriented," she says, "and everyone had a lot of fun. That was my goal before I ever dreamed of competing in the Olympics."

"She's quiet, driven, an over-achiever," says her father. "She's totally self-motivated and wants to be perfect all the time."

When Strug turned 12, she told her parents she wanted to move to Houston to train with Karolyi. "I knew if I was going to make the '92 team," she says, "I had to make a change."

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