Fame, sudden, mercurial and unexpected, creates its own dilemmas. The pressure to cash in is immeasurable. For Strug, physical therapy took a backseat to making appearances. So her ankle injury, far worse than anyone had realized, took longer to heal. Strug now carries herself stiffly and walks with a trace of a limp. Performing, she avoids high-impact landings.
After the Games she hired a high-profile agent, Leigh Steinberg, whose mission was to resist what he calls "the downward curve of the Olympics—a few bright moments followed by obscurity." Steinberg, who helped negotiate Strug's early deals but now serves only as an adviser, says, "We didn't think this was going to be Dorothy Hamill or Mary Lou Retton. There was no buildup. It began with one serendipitous and tragic moment." Strug has appeared on Touched by an Angel, Beverly Hills 90210, America's Funniest Home Videos and The Rosie O'Donnell Show, all in an attempt, Steinberg says, "to keep her in the bike lane."
Rosie's producers were aghast at the white outfit she said she intended to wear on The Tonight Show, and they dressed Strug in DKNY, which was cool because it gave her something to wear to Clinton's birthday bash, where she was seated next to the First Teenager. Strug says, "Chelsea told me, 'You've got to be humble and be yourself. If you don't know what to do, smile and wave.' I've used that a couple of times."
Before the Olympics, Strug was overshadowed and, by her own admission, often overwhelmed. "I was always second fiddle," she says. "If they took two girls to the finals, I was third. If they took three, I was fourth."
At the 1992 Olympics, in Barcelona, she had missed the all-around finals by .014 of a point, finishing fourth on the U.S. team. After the Games, Karolyi retired, and over the next three years Strug was a gymnastics vagabond, hopping from coach to coach, reeling from injury to injury. "They were the worst years of my life," she says. She tore a stomach muscle while training in Oklahoma in the winter of 1993. The following summer she fell from the uneven parallel bars and severely sprained her lower back. "That really scared my dad," she says. "An arm, a leg, it heals. But a back is different. After a few days he cooled off and saw it would be O.K." Karolyi un-retired in October '94, and Strug returned to his gym at the end of 1995.
In Atlanta, Strug was the last U.S. gymnast on the last apparatus on the last day of the team competition. She remembers nothing of what transpired in the air on her first vault, only the ominous sound and pain of her too-short landing. Her left ankle gave way. "There was such momentum," she says, "the bone was shoved forward and then back in place," tearing the medial and lateral ligaments. Team doctors believe most of the damage occurred on that first vault, though they can't say for sure. She could not bring herself to watch the videotape until Christmas; even now it gives her the chills. She unconsciously flexes the ankle while the tape rolls.
Asking an elite athlete to step back and consider the wisdom of what she is about to do is a little like leading a thoroughbred to the gate and saying, "Don't run." As Phelps says, "When you're in the moment, you're in the moment." And a moment is all Strug had. The judges took a minute to score her first vault. Then she had 30 seconds to decide what to do. With Karolyi yelling, "You can do it! Shake it out!" and 32,000 others just plain yelling, she hopped up and down, trying to feel her foot. She remembered just missing the all-around finals in Barcelona and thought, I'm not going to almost make it again.
She had worked with a sports psychologist, visualizing herself seizing the moment instead of seizing up in it. The green light flashed go, and she went.
"Everyone always said I was the baby," says Strug. "This was my time, and I said, I'm going to prove it. People have the wrong impression, that [gymnasts] are robots and don't think. I was upset with people blaming Bela [for my decision to vault again]." And she is upset over a perceived double standard for male and female athletes. "If it's a boy, it's fine, he's tough," she says. "When it's a [female] gymnast, we're being abused and ruining our bodies. It's the same thing—the athlete wants it, and the coach helps you get through it."
She doesn't remember asking Karolyi the child's question, Do I have to do this? She remembers, instead, asking the competitor's question, Do we need this?