Most notable sports figures cannot—and would not want to—claim that their fame is derived from a single moment. This, however, is the case with Kerri Strug. Before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, Strug had earned a reputation as a solid performer in the gymnastics world. The shy, reserved Strug, however, was never a household name like some of her other, flashier teammates, such as Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes . In one moment on July 23, 1996, this all changed when Strug vaulted into the world's consciousness—literally. As the final performer during the final event of the women's team competition, Strug completed her second and final vault, in obvious pain on a sprained ankle, to secure the first ever Olympic gold medal for the United States women's gymnastics team. This courageous and heroic moment was captured in countless media images and broadcast around the world, and secured her own place in Olympic and sports history.
A Lifelong Passion
Kerri Allyson Strug was born on November 19, 1977, in Tucson, Arizona. Unlike many other gymnasts, who are pushed into the sport by their parents from an early age, Strug chose the hard life of a gymnast herself. When she was only a few years old, Strug asked her parents to enroll her in tumbling classes. Strug had attended the meets of her older sister, Lisa, and older brother, Kevin, and decided that she wanted to try it, too. Strug quickly proved that her interest stemmed from more than just a natural desire to emulate her older siblings—she also had natural talent. Strug's parents supported her ambition, and enrolled her in gymnastics classes at the age of four. By the age of six, Strug was taking private lessons from Jim Gault, a gymnastics coach at the University of Arizona.
When she was seven, Strug visited her sister at a gymnastics summer camp in Texas, run by the famous gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi , who had trained such past gymnastics champions as Nadia Comaneci , and who was then training America's star gymnast, Mary Lou Retton . A member of Karolyi's coaching staff noticed Kerri's back flips and encouraged Strug's parents to enroll her in Karolyi's school full-time. Strug's parents refused, however. They had always stressed the importance of education to their children, and worried that gymnastics would take precedence over Kerri's education.
Strug continued to work hard in school, and even harder in her after-school gymnastics lessons. She also started to compete, entering her first gymnastics competition
at the age of eight. She advanced quickly over the next several years, earning top finishes in local and regional events. At the age of twelve, however, Strug decided that she wanted more—she wanted to make it to the Olympics. In order to compete with the best, she knew she needed to train with the best: Karolyi. Strug's parents reluctantly agreed to send her to Karolyi's expensive school full-time, on the condition that she not neglect her education. In January 1991, at the age of thirteen, Strug moved to Houston to begin her new life.
Triumph and Heartbreak
From the moment Strug began training with Karolyi, all aspects of her life were monitored by the notoriously demanding coach and his wife, Martha. Karolyi pushed Strug to her physical and mental limits to prepare her for international competition. Strug worked hard, and her efforts paid off. In 1991, she won first place in the vault at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, becoming the youngest female ever to win an event at this competition. The next year, she qualified for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and helped the women's team win a bronze medal. Her Olympic performance was bittersweet, however, because she narrowly missed making the individual all-around finals.
After the Olympics, Karolyi announced his retirement and Strug was left without a coach. Over the next few years, Strug bounced from gym to gym, moving to Florida, Oklahoma, and Colorado, but she was unable to find a coach who could help her the way Karolyi had. Worse yet, Strug also experienced a number of debilitating injuries during this time period, including a torn stomach muscle that forced her to move back with her parents for six months to heal. In 1994, during a small competition, Strug fell off of the uneven bars and landed on her back, severely pulling her back muscles, which required another six-month break to heal. Despite these setbacks, Strug hoped to be competitive long enough to make it to the 1996 Olympics. Her ultimate dream was to compete in the Olympics' individual all-around finals that she had narrowly missed qualifying for in 1992.
|1977||Born November 19 in Tucson, Arizona|
|1984||Noticed by a coach at Karolyi's summer camp, who encourages Strug's parents to have Kerri train full-time with Karolyi|
|1989||Begins training with Bela Karolyi|
|1989||Member of Junior Pacific Alliance Team|
|1990||Member of Junior Pan Am Games Team|
|1991||Member of World Gymnastics Championship Team|
|1992||Member of United States Olympic Team|
|1992||Karolyi announces retirement; Strug changes coaches repeatedly for next several years|
|1993||Member of Hilton Challenge Team|
|1994||Member of Team World Championship Team|
|1995||Graduates from high school a year ahead of schedule—with a perfect 4.0 GPA—and earns a scholarship to University of California, Los Angeles, but defers enrollment for a year so that she can train for the 1996 Olympics|
|1995||Resumes training with Karolyi, who had come out of retirement in 1994|
|1995||Member of World Champion Team|
|1996||Member of United States Olympic Team|
|1996||Performs historic vault on an injured ankle in final round of the women's gymnastics team competition to help United States women's gymnastics team win first ever gold medal|
|1996||Featured on the Wheaties cereal box with her Olympic teammates|
|1996||Appears on an episode of "Saturday Night Live," in which she makes fun of her infamous high-pitched voice|
|1997||Works as an intern on the sports staff of KNBC-TV in Los Angeles|
|1998||Works as an intern for Entertainment Tonight|
|1999||Competes in her first marathon|
|2001||Graduates from Stanford with a Communications degree|
|2001||Works as an intern for Republican Senator John McCain|
Once again, she recognized that the key to trying to achieve her dreams was Bela Karolyi, who had come out of retirement in 1994. In 1995, she resumed training with Karolyi, who was coaching newcomer Dominique Moceanu—a young gymnast who had attracted attention when she won the all-around competition at the 1995 United States Gymnastics Championships. Most had high hopes for Moceanu, while Strug received little media attention. This trend remained true even after Strug won her first international competition at the McDonald's American Cup in March 1996. Likewise, when she earned a spot on the 1996 Olympics women's gymnastics team—by finishing second in the all-around competition at the United States Olympic trials—the press still favored Strug's teammates.
This might have happened at the Atlanta Olympics, too. Normally, Karolyi, like many coaches, place the gymnasts who they think will perform the best in the coveted anchor position for each event. This time, however, Karolyi changed his coaching strategy, and decided to determine the individual positions based only on the gymnasts' performance at the Olympic trials. Since Strug had placed so high in the trials, she earned the anchor position on both the floor exercise and vault events. Throughout the team competition, the United States performed well, and by the end of the second night, they were in first place, ahead of the second-place Russian team. The race was still close, however, as the American team entered its final event, the vault.
The Historic Vault
Although Strug's teammates did well in the beginning of the competition, Moceanu fell on both of her vault attempts. Gymnasts are generally taught to focus on their performances, not their scores, so by the time Strug prepared to vault, the American team had not been averaging their posted scores and so did not know how close they were to the Russians. By Karolyi's calculations, Strug, the final competitor in the final team event, needed to earn at least a 9.6 on the vault to secure the gold medal for the American team. On the first of her two vaults, Strug also fell, landing wrong on her ankle and limping back to the starting line, visibly injured. When her 9.162 score was posted, Strug believed that she would have to complete the second vault for her team to win, and she was urged by Karolyi and her teammates to shake off her injury. Although Strug had heard something snap in her ankle on her first vault, and her leg was numb, she decided to complete her second vault. She sprinted down the runway, executed a clean vault, and landed solidly on both of her feet, the grimace on her face revealing the obvious pain that she was feeling standing on her injured ankle. After the few seconds necessary to stick her vault and give the customary acknowledgement to the judges, Strug collapsed to the mat and cried for help. Her courageous vault earned Strug a 9.712 score, more than enough to secure the gold medal for the American team.
Unfortunately, in the process, Strug sprained her ankle and tore two ligaments. As in the bittersweet 1992 Olympics, when she helped her team win a bronze medal but did not qualify to compete in the all-around singles event, Strug was prevented from achieving this ultimate Olympic dream once again. This time, she had earned a spot in the singles competition, but the severity of her ankle injury prevented her from competing.
Awards and Accomplishments
|Strug was a six-year member of the United States National Gymnastics Team.|
|1989||First place all around at the American Classic, California and second place all around at the American Classic, Texas|
|1990||Second place for uneven bars and balance beam, Dutch Open|
|1991||First place for vault, United States Gymnastics Championships; becomes the youngest female ever to win an event at this competition|
|1991||First place for vault, United States vs. Romania|
|1991||Team silver medal in World Championships|
|1992||Finished first place for vault and balance beam, second place for all-around competition and floor exercises at the United States Gymnastics Championships|
|1992||Helped United States women's gymnastics team earn Olympic bronze medal; at fourteen, Strug is the team's youngest member|
|1993||First place all around, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise, American Classic/World Championships Trials|
|1993||First place for uneven bars and second place for all around, balance beam, and floor exercise at the United States Olympic Festival Second place for uneven bars at the Coca-Cola National Championships|
|1993||First place for balance beam and second place all around at the McDonald's American Cup|
|1993||Second place all around at the Reebok International Mixed Pairs|
|1994||Second place all around at the NationsBank World Team Trials|
|1994||Silver medal in Team World Championships|
|1995||First place all around and for uneven bars at the United States Olympic Festival|
|1995||Team bronze medal in World Championships|
|1996||First place all around at the McDonald's American Cup; also first place for balance beam and floor exercise, and second place for vault and uneven bars|
|1996||Clinched United States women's gymnastics team's first ever Olympic gold medal|
|1996||Won Olympic Spirit Award for performing her famous vault on an injured ankle during the 1996 Olympics|
Where Is She Now?
Strug's ankle injury in the Olympics got worse after she performed on it for various publicity tours and promotional stunts without giving it time to heal properly, which ultimately meant that her competition days were over. She turned her focus to education instead. After graduating from Stanford University with bachelor's and master's degrees, Strug began a career in elementary education. She currently lives in Palo Alto California, and works as a second-grade teacher in the San Francisco Bay area. Since the 1996 Olympics she has endorsed several charities, including DARE, Pediatric AIDS, Make-a-Wish Foundation, Childhelp, and NO-ADDiction. As part of these and other promotions, Strug has sometimes performed in gymnastics events, although she avoids high-impact gymnastics moves to minimize the strain on her ankle. Partially as an attempt to strengthen her weak ankle, Strug took up running. In 1999, she completed her first marathon.
Strug's heroic vault and the American team's gold medal created a media blitz that had several effects, both positive and negative. It was revealed that Karolyi's calculations were incorrect, and Strug did not even have to vault for the women's team to win the gold medal. While some chose not to focus on this fact, and instead catapulted Strug to instant fame as a symbol of Olympic bravery and strength, others used her vault to add fuel to the idea that the particular rigors associated with women's gymnastics were destructive to young girls. Strug herself was outspoken about this issue, giving her support to Karolyi and saying that it was her decision to vault. In highly publicized interviews she noted the double standard, where people try to protect female athletes from injuring themselves, while male athletes injure themselves just as much and are considered brave and tough for their efforts.
In the end, despite the fact that Strug successfully competed in international gymnastics competitions for years, she will most likely always be remembered for her heroic sacrifice at the end of the 1996 Olympics. The fact that this sacrifice was unnecessary for the win is irrelevant, as many commentators noted. It is what Strug's vault symbolized that is important. Before the vault, Strug was passed over by the media because she was never considered to be as tough as her competitors. Few in the gymnastics world, including Karolyi, ever expected that Strug would be a hero. When she defied all expectations and proved to herself, her teammates, her coach, and the world that she could be gutsy, too, she became a symbol of quiet strength and unexpected bravery. Her sacrifice gave hope to others—athletes and non-athletes alike—that they, too, could defy the odds and achieve their dreams, regardless of what anybody said.
Address: Kerri Strug Fan Club, 2801 N. Camino Principal, Tucson, AZ 85715.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY STRUG:
(With Greg Brown) Heart of Gold, Taylor, 1996.
(With John P. Lopez) Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams, Andrews McMeel, 1997.
Girls Know Best, MJF Books, 1999.
Kleinbaum, Nancy H. Magnificent Seven: The Authorized Story of American Gold. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1996.
Layden, Joe. Women In Sports: The Complete Book on the World's Greatest Female Athletes. Los Angeles: General Publishing Group, 1997.
Newsmakers 1997 (Issue 4) Detroit: Gale Group, 1997.
Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1998.
"A team torn apart." Sports Illustrated (September 9, 1996): p. 9.
Baldwin, Kristen. "Kerri Struggles." Entertainment Weekly (October 18, 1996): 12.
Cooper, Bob. "Happy Landing." Runner's World (May 1999): p. 76.
Hoffer, Richard. "Day 5: a most unlikely hero." Sports Illustrated (August, 1996, Special Issue): 40.
Leavy, Jane. "Happy Landing." Sports Illustrated (August 11, 1997): p. 54.
Starr, Mark. "Leap of faith—gymnastics: with one inspiring vault, the U.S. women's team won a gold medal—and an honored place in Olympic history." Newsweek (August 5, 1996): 40.
Swanson, Neil. "Gold Medal Detector." National Journal (August 18, 2001): 2635.
Swift, E.M. "Carried away with emotion." Sports Illustrated (August 12, 1996): 104.
Contemporary Authors Online, Detroit: Gale Group, 2003. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Detroit: Gale Group. 2003. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 24, 2003).
Kerri Strug's Home Page. http://www.strug.org. (January 25, 2003).
Sports Stars Series 1–4. U•X•L, 1994-98. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Detroit: Gale Group.2003. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 24, 2003).
USA Gymnastics Online. http://www.usa-gymnastics.org/athletes/bios/s/kstrug.html. (January 20, 2003).
Sketch by Ryan Poquette