Over the years Bela Karolyi has put his bearlike self in front of so many cameras, hugging so many of his tiny girl gymnasts, that I almost cannot stand to watch anymore. Those hugs are self-promotional in nature, done for the benefit of the judges and, one supposes, the little girls watching on TV who might one day aspire to train in Karolyi's gym. Rest assured, he doesn't hug his charges like that when they practice till the tears fall. His displays of affection are affected for the eyes of the crowds.
But when Karolyi carried injured Kerri Strug in his arms like a crippled child so that she could receive her team gold medal with her teammates, I couldn't look away. This was no contrived Karolyi moment. A few minutes before, Strug had been helped off the floor, weeping, having collapsed with two torn ligaments in her left ankle after her final vault. She was placed on a stretcher and fitted with a temporary cast, then told she was being taken for X-rays. "Bela! Bela!" Strug called out, crying. "They're taking me to the hospital."
"No one's taking you anywhere until you get your gold medal," he assured her, lifting her off the stretcher. Strug's teammates, wondering about her condition and whereabouts, had refused to proceed to the medal stand without her. Reunited, the American team marched out as a group, Strug and Karolyi last.
"Wave to the crowd, Kerri," Karolyi whispered, and she did. As the coach looked down at his longtime pupil, the girl who had always been No. 2 in his gym, the quiet, competent understudy, Karolyi's eyes were filled with pride and something I had never seen in them before: respect. Her bravery had surprised even him.
That shy, halting wave of Kerri Strug's was filled with many emotions: pride, humility, pain, even sadness, for Strug, unused to the starring role, had no idea that she was perceived as a hero. All she knew, beyond the certainty of the gold medal, was that she had injured herself too badly to compete in the individual all-around competition two days later, a goal she'd clung to for the past four years. Thus was her moment of greatest triumph also her moment of greatest disappointment. Her will had found a way to block out the pain for a few crucial seconds, but it had exacted a punishing price. She had literally sacrificed herself for the team.