There are images that endure and eventually define the Olympic Games, images whose light outlasts the madness and hullabaloo. Years from now millions will still remember 18-year-old Kerri Strug, her left foot gingerly raised, hopping to acknowledge first one set of judges and then the other before collapsing in pain, frustration and tears.
They'll remember Bela Karolyi, the coach who had told Strug that the team needed one more vault, carrying her onto the stand for the medal ceremony, her ankle, with two torn ligaments, protected by a temporary cast. Once there Strug, her face a mask of conflicting emotions, collected with her beaming teammates the first gymnastics team gold medal ever won by the American women.
That it was the unsung Strug who found herself in the hero's role on July 23, rather than one of her more heralded, equally deserving teammates, was, well, a delicious reminder that the lore of the Games is created by the games themselves, not by the media or the promoters. Had Strug's 14-year-old teammate Dominique Moceanu, vaulting immediately before her, not fallen on both of her attempts, Strug's extraordinary act of courage wouldn't have been necessary or, probably, permitted. "I saw Dom fall the first time," Strug says, "and I thought, I can't believe it. Then she fell a second time, and it was like time stopped. The Russians, I knew, were on the floor, which can be a high-scoring event, and my heart was beating like crazy. I thought, This is it, Kerri. You've done this vault a thousand times."
Until Moceanu's twin gaffes, the U.S. women had been virtually mistake-free through seven rotations of the team competition. Two days earlier, in the compulsories, which account for 50% of the scoring, they had nailed 23 of 24 routines to finish ahead of the world-champion Romanians and a scant .127 of a point behind the surprising Russians, whose tradition of gymnastics excellence shows no signs of having slipped since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Depth was one factor in the Americans' success. In Moceanu, Dominique Dawes and Shannon Miller, the U.S. women had three former or current national champions. Experience was another. Every member of the U.S. team had participated in at least one world championship, and Dawes, Miller and Strug were all veterans of the 1992 Olympics.
But perhaps the most important element in the U.S. success was that, wonder of wonders, the seven members of this team actually like each other. They pulled for each other. They subordinated personal goals for those of the team. Nineteen-year-old Amanda Borden, voted team captain, set the tone, uncomplainingly sitting out two rotations and after every routine greeting the teammate who performed it with a sisterly hug that exuded considerably more warmth than those usually doled out by Karolyi and the other most prominent American coach, Steve Nunno. (Karolyi and Nunno were required to shout instructions and preen for the television cameras from outside the barriers because Karolyi's wife, Martha, and Mary Lee Tracy were the official coaches.) All this was in stark contrast to '92, when the U.S. women, taking their cue from the bickering coaching staff, were about as united as a bagful of cats. "The coaches got along so well this time that we couldn't believe it," says Miller.
"Everyone had a role on this team," says Tracy, whose interpersonal skills kept the egos in check. "I tried to make sure everyone's opinion was heard."
Starting orders for rotations—which go a long way toward determining who qualifies for the individual all-around—were determined not on reputation but on the gymnasts' performances at the nationals and the Olympic trials. Strug won the floor and the vault at the trials. As a result, though she had been overshadowed her entire career, first by Kim Zmeskal and then by Moceanu, while toiling in the Karolyis' gym, Strug was the last American up in those two events.
The gymnasts also did some serious bonding while staying in a suburban location away from the Olympic Village. Those whereabouts were as closely guarded a secret as who would light the Olympic flame. It turned out their home away from home was, of all things, a fraternity house at Emory University. Connally House, a stately brick building with six two-story columns standing sentinel on the portico, provided the team with all the comforts of home—individual bedrooms, living room furniture, televisions with VCRs—plus 24-hour security, which made the frat house look like the target of a bomb threat. The area around the building was cordoned off with police tape, and a thick chain was draped across the driveway, just in case any of the boys from Boit House, the fraternity across the street, tried to come by for a handstand or two.
Rested, confident, healthy and poised, the U.S. women needed all of one rotation in the optionals to obliterate the Russians' lead and pull away from the Romanians. "They looked like a very strong army, and we looked like a commando unit trying to survive," says Romanian coach Octavio Belu, whose team had lost three members to injuries before the competition.