SI Vault
Jane Leavy
August 11, 1997
A year after her Olympic vault to fame, Kerri Strug is in college, learning to live like an ordinary kid
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August 11, 1997

Happy Landing

A year after her Olympic vault to fame, Kerri Strug is in college, learning to live like an ordinary kid

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Producers in the TV trucks, parents in the stands, officials at the scorer's table all knew the answer: no. Only the coaches and the athletes didn't know. "In the excitement of the moment, I think they forgot how to add," says Jackie Fie, an international gymnastics official who was at the table. "I was wondering why she went again. I thought, Gosh, that's brave when she really doesn't have to do it."

She held the landing for the judges and then collapsed on the mat on all fours. "It felt like a bomb went off," she says.

Strug had no idea of the impact of what she'd done. In the tumult and tears she refused to let doctors cut off her vaulting shoes. They were lucky shoes, and she thought she would need them for the all-around competition.

The Olympic music announcing the medal ceremony began to play. Her teammates were waiting for her; her parents, who hadn't seen her in a month, wanted her to go straight to the hospital. She said, "No, I want my medal." She declined a wheelchair, protesting, "I can walk. I'm fine." She couldn't. Karolyi gathered her up in his arms and carried her to the podium, where her teammates would support her while she stood on one leg for The Star-Spangled Banner. To some, the image of the diminutive gymnast in Big Daddy's arms undercut the symbolic importance of a female athlete sucking it up. The criticism of Karolyi irks her. She says he deserved to be there on the podium.

Two days later she hoped to compete in the all-arounds, through Sunday, but she couldn't perform a back handspring, something she'd been able to do in the fifth grade.

"Basically she is a timid person," says Karolyi, who still refers to Strug as a little girl. "She turned totally against her nature" in Atlanta. In so doing, Karolyi believes, she changed the way gymnasts are perceived. "Always they are nice, they can smile, but when things get tough they run away and cry," he says. "This bothers me. They are all tigers—Mary Lou and Nadia. Kerri was the last probability to show the world the heart of the tiger, but she was the one."

Now little girls on gym mats all over the U.S. crowd around to touch Strug's autographed picture. Through the Children's Miracle Network, a nonprofit organization that runs programs to benefit hospitalized children, she meets kids whose goals are literally to stand on their own two feet. "I was so involved with myself and gymnastics," she says. "I'd have a bad day and think it was the end of the world. I meet these children, who are so optimistic, and their lives could go anytime. It's nice to know that just by smiling you can make a child happy."

After so many improbable airborne maneuvers, so many twists and turns of fate, Strug is amazed that the degree of difficulty in achieving happiness is so small. "It's so easy," she says.

A smile never hurts.

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