Her voice is changing, lowering along with her expectations of outrageous fame and fortune. "It is?" Kerri Strug asks, hopefully. "Really?"
Really. It has been a year since she vaulted into prominence by sticking her landing on an injured ankle at the Olympics. The high-pitched drama in Atlanta has receded along with the pain in her famous left foot. She speaks with a deeper appreciation of what she accomplished and what she's trying to accomplish. "I have to learn to grow up," she says.
The pursuit of athletic excellence can be stunting, physically and socially. Strug will turn 20 in November and is about to enter her second year at UCLA. Like so many child athletes, who are both older and younger than their years, she is straddling two worlds, a woman-child in the promised land of celebrity, trying to stick a landing in adulthood.
She could teach a course in irony. The little girl who never had time to go to birthday parties helped Bill Clinton celebrate his 50th. The great grandchild of Jewish immigrants who never had time for religion went to Israel to help light the torch at the 1997 Maccabiah Games. The millionaire who has multiple agents listens to the sound tracks of Aladdin and The Lion King in her BMW. The athlete who lived a life of prescribed routine and routines (floor, beam, bars) grapples with the freedom to establish her own daily routine.
"All I know is how to train and go to school," she says. "I'm here [at college] with kids who are way ahead of me. It's like my mom says, I'm really comfortable around businessmen, but around guys my age I'm more edgy. I had never been to wild parties. I've never been on a date. I'm so innocent."
Which doesn't stop TV interviewers who come to commemorate the anniversary of the Vault from asking, "Have you met any guys?" Strug smiles gamely and replies that there's plenty of time. "You can catch up in that area fast," she says.
There's a huge difference between a little girl and a small woman. At her off-campus apartment the phone rings. It is her insurance agent calling with a few impertinent questions. Strug answers them all, resolutely polite. "I haven't started going through puberty yet," she tells the caller. "Because of gymnastics you go through it later." Low body fat combined with intense training and diet control can cause amenorrhea, the suppression of menstruation. It happened to Strug's hero, Mary Lou Retton, as well as Strug's Olympic teammate Shannon Miller. Delayed puberty is the cause of Strug's chirpy Betty Boop voice, which she cheerfully lampooned in an appearance on Saturday Night Live last fall.
"I went to see a doctor about my voice," she says. "He said it will get lower for sure. He said more estrogen or whatever would make a significant difference." She hopes so. She wants to go into broadcasting. She works as an intern on the sports staff at KNBC-TV in L.A., trying, she says without irony, "to get a foot in the door."
In the scene we all remember from the '96 Olympics, Strug was cradled in the arms of her coach, Bela Karolyi, being held up as the embodiment of athletic heroism. Since then she's been held aloft by Barry Switzer, Shaquille O'Neal and a couple of ESPN anchormen, not to mention several fuzzy college team mascots.
She's eaten pizza without removing the cheese, pledged a sorority, maintained a 3.75 GPA, learned to walk in high heels and earned $1.3 million. "I'm like, all this from one vault," she says. Her face is fuller and softer, her freckles more prominent. She stands 4'9½" and weighs 93 pounds, maybe a quarter of an inch taller and four pounds heavier than a year ago. Intensive training during puberty can delay growth, but Strug comes by her size naturally. Her mother, Melanie, is 4'11"; her father, Burt, a heart surgeon, is 5'4½". "I just want to get to five feet," Kerri says.