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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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So Strug moved to Houston. She had an aunt and uncle, Ann and Don Mangold, there, but for convenience she lived with a family near the gym and visited the Mangolds on weekends. Her parents visited her every couple of weeks, and while at times she was lonely, it was a lot like just being away at school. In 1991 Strug became the youngest member of the national team, and at 14 she was the baby of the bronze-medal-winning Olympic team at Barcelona. She kept her dream of competing in college alive by turning down all overtures from agents and all appearance fees for exhibitions, and, after graduating from high school in Tucson last summer with a 4.0 average, Strug deferred enrollment at UCLA for a year to concentrate on qualifying for Atlanta. "I've always said that only a Mary Lou-type opportunity could keep me from competing in college," says Strug. "Now those words have kind of jumped up to bite me. A week ago I knew what I was going to do for the next couple of years. Now agents are calling and offers are coming in we never dreamed of. Everyone's telling me I'm the Mary Lou of these Olympics. It's overwhelming."

When Strug watches the tape of that final, riveting vault, what she cannot believe is that, somehow, she isn't limping during her approach. Karolyi says that even the slightest list in her stride would have destroyed her rhythm and made a successful vault impossible, but the adrenaline, and possibly the prayer, allowed her to block out the pain and sprint down the runway full throttle. "I was thinking about the vault and nothing else," Strug says. "I felt pretty good in the air, but I'd felt good the time before, too. Then when I landed, I heard another crack. A lot of people are criticizing Bela for encouraging me to do it, but I'm 18. I'm an adult. I make my own choices. It was definitely my decision and kind of a matter of pride. I didn't want to be remembered for falling on my butt in my best event."

As it turned out, the last two Russian competitors, Dina Kochetkova and Rozalia Galiyeva, turned in mediocre floor routines, so the Americans would have won by .309 without the vault that has changed Strug's life. But she couldn't have known that at the time, and it makes her no less a hero. That final vault, for which she scored 9.712, aggravated her injury to such an extent that it torpedoed her longtime goal of competing in the Olympic individual all-around—she had missed out in 1992 by .0012. "She had the best day of her life and the worst day of her life in five seconds," Burt says.

Disappointment, pride and pain all were etched on Strug's face when Karolyi carried her to the podium to receive her gold medal. But two days later, while watching her teammates warm up for the all-around competition (her place in the lineup had been taken by Moceanu), Strug, still on crutches, showed only the disappointment. "She was a basket case," says Melanie. "She cried all through the beginning of the competition. Even after all that's happened—meeting the President, being a so-called hero, having all these new opportunities—she said to me, 'I have not achieved both my goals: a team gold and competing in the individual all-around.' I told her, 'Kerri, sometimes you don't reach all your goals in life.' "

It was a lesson reiterated in various ways throughout the week. Dawes and Miller, who were one-two through the first two rotations of last Thursday's all-around competition, both stepped out-of-bounds on the floor exercise, which knocked them out of medal contention and brought them to tears. The crown went to world champion Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine, a 17-year-old powerhouse who became the first woman to follow her world title with an Olympic crown since the Soviet Union's Lyudmila Turischeva did so in 1972.

On the men's side, Russia won the team gold, but individual honors went to Li Xiaoshuang, who became the first Chinese man to win the all-around, by edging Russia's Alexei Nemov by a scant .049. Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus, a six-time gold medalist in 1992, was third.

The American men finished a respectable fifth in the team competition, one place higher than in Barcelona, and had hopes of a surprise bronze medal until faltering on their nemesis, the pommel horse. In the all-around John Roethlisberger (7th) and Blaine Wilson (10th) gave the U.S. its two highest finishes since the Soviet-boycotted Games of '84.

But it was in Monday's apparatus finals that the American men finally broke through to the medal stand. Twenty-four-year-old Jair Lynch, the last man up on the parallel bars, scored a 9.825 to earn a silver medal, giving the men a much-needed psychological boost as they look ahead to Sydney, four years hence.

The women, emotionally drained from the excitement of winning the team gold, showed uncharacteristic signs of nerves in the apparatus finals. Only Chow came through on Sunday, taking the silver on the uneven bars. On Monday, Miller, who had been struggling since the individual all-around, redeemed herself by winning on the beam, her seventh Olympic medal and her first individual gold.

And Strug? As desperately as she wanted to compete in the apparatus finals, she withdrew from both the vault and the floor exercise (in which Dawes replaced her and earned a bronze). U.S. team physician Daniel Carr said that Strug's ankle would take a minimum of three weeks to heal, and to compete would do further damage. But Strug continued to take therapy, continued to work on her routines in whatever ways she could and continued to try to wish the swelling away until a few minutes before Monday's competition. That's when Karolyi told her that the doctor had said no go. "She did not take it well," he said. "She believed she could do it, but the miracle cannot happen."

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