1996: Kerri Strug Makes Olympic History
Everyone in the production truck knew Kerri Strug had done it. In the final vault of the women’s gymnastics team finals at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, the 18-year-old gymnast had overcome the U.S. deficit on the scoreboard to narrowly edge out the Russian team by less than a point.
It was a good thing, too, because Strug’s run had ended badly. After dismounting the vault apparatus, she had landed awkwardly, a loud crack coming from her left ankle. The bone had been moved forward, severing her medial and lateral ligaments.
But what was obvious to the television crew and to many of the spectators that July 23 was not at all apparent to the U.S. team or their coaches. They had just 30 seconds to decide whether or not the score discrepancy added up to a narrow margin of victory or a second-place finish. It was better to have Strug go a second time to guarantee the gold medal.
The four-foot, nine-inch gymnast, who hadn’t even experienced puberty yet due to a lack of body fat, nodded her head. She would run another 75 feet and do it again.
Strug’s determination not to trail the Russians began in 1992, when the then-14-year old gymnast offered what she considered a weak and ineffectual performance in the Barcelona Games, finishing fourth among the American team. Still a young teenager, she had moved away from her parents in Tucson, Arizona to be closer to Béla Károlyi, a renowned gymnastics coach in Houston, Texas.
After qualifying for the 1996 games, Strug and the rest of the women’s squad—dubbed the “Magnificent Seven” and led by Károlyi's wife, Martha—stayed at an empty fraternity house at Emory University outside of the Olympic Village to avoid distractions. While Strug was determined not to repeat her subpar performance from four years earlier, the team as a whole was facing an even bigger obstacle: No women’s U.S. gymnastics team had ever taken Olympic gold. The event had been dominated by the Russians since 1948.
Things were looking up early on; then Strug’s teammate, Dominique Moceanu, fell twice, evaporating the American lead. The Russians were looking at another victory when Strug’s turn at the vault came up.
Before being revamped in 2000, the apparatus resembled a pommel horse without the handles and provided a platform (with an adjacent springboard) from which a gymnast could propel themselves into a maneuver. It was also infamous for causing injuries: Sang Lan, a Chinese competitor, suffered a spinal injury during the 1988 Goodwill Games that resulted in paralysis; an inadvertently-shortened vault led to a series of accidents at the 2000 Games.
Strug leapt into the air, landing on her back and injuring her ankle.
Her score: 9.162. As she limped away, Károlyi screamed at her from behind a barricade: “We need it, we need it! Shake it out!”
Strug later said the sting of the 1992 Games was in her head when she decided to attempt a second jump. Running the 75 feet leading to the vault, she jumped into a back handspring that was executed without error. When she landed, another crack could be heard from her ankle. She held her pose just long enough to get the judges' recognition before she collapsed.
The jump improved her score to 9.712. The U.S. team had made history by beating the second-place Russians by a margin of just over eight-tenths of a point.
Károlyi carried Strug to the podium, where her teammates helped her stand long enough to receive the gold medal. More than 32,000 fans in the Georgia Dome saw it, but NBC’s broadcast was delayed. It would be nearly six hours—after midnight eastern time—before the rest of the country witnessed Strug’s jump into history.
Doctors weren’t sure how much of the damage to Strug's foot was the result of the first jump and how much was exacerbated by the second. The ankle was slow to heal, prompting her to take it easy during performances following the Games. (Skipping them entirely would have been a poor financial choice; she received up to $24,000 for such appearances.)
The media couldn’t get enough of Strug’s impressive constitution, contrasting her diminutive size and age with the courage it took to jump a second time. Károlyi and others were quick to point out that it was a belated observation—all gymnasts were tough.
Strug’s original plan was to attend UCLA on a scholarship, where she could continue competing. The jump, however, made her irresistible as a post-Olympic commodity, and the paid appearances made her ineligible for amateur competition. She hired a talent agent to navigate business opportunities and guest spots on shows like Beverly Hills, 90210, and Touched by an Angel before graduating from Stanford University in 2001 with a bachelor's degree, then earning a master's in sociology shortly thereafter.
Most people, however, probably recognize Strug from her endorsement deals. In addition to pitching for leotards and breakfast cereal, the 3M company saw a perfect marriage of athlete and consumer product: Strug appeared in commercials for Ace bandages.
All images courtesy of Getty.