Don't think about the pain

Focus on winning: Kerri Strug

‘It’s up to her… she is the last to go… she’s the only one who can do it.’

Kerri Strug, an American born protégé, started training in gymnastics from the age of 3. Having worked with multiple coaches, she soon got the first taste of featuring in the Olympics at Barcelona in 1992. At just 14 years of age, she was the youngest Olympian to qualify on team USA.

At the Olympic preliminaries, Strug fell during the floor practice schedule, yet despite the fact that she had persuaded herself that she had demolished her odds of qualifying, the Arizona-born gymnastic specialist was named the fourth member from the six-man group. Even though the youngster ended up scoring a bronze for the team, she missed out on a place in the all-around as her performance was overshadowed by Kim Zmeskal, who took the last spot.

Kerri had lost all expectations at this point. Having worked her whole life and at the end being unable to earn a spot in the team deflated her morale. However, this setback was nothing compared to what she was going to experience in 1996.

In 1996, Kerri managed to squeeze her way through into the line-up known as the Magnificent Seven. The Magnificent Seven were an outstanding absolute best of the best cream of the gymnast world. The 1996 Olympics were being held at the Georgia Dome, Atlanta. A home ground for the Americans. Even though team USA was in a rich vein of form, they were up against the Soviets and the Romanians.

This was a place where the Soviets dominated. They were the champions of the gymnast world. Even the Romanians could not beat them to an Olympic gold. 

Since 1952, the Soviet team won nine out of the eleven events they had competed in. Withstanding the pressure history had put over them, team USA succeeded in putting themselves in a strong position as the competition neared its conclusion on 23rd July 1996.

At the end of the final rotation, the Soviet team was tailing the Americans by 0.897 points. Decent landings in the Vault routine, the final competition, would have bagged a definite gold for the U.S. At this point, it would have taken a collapse of epic proportions for the Americans to not win their first historically speaking group gold decoration.

The Magnificent Seven – Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps and Strug – were on the brink of history that day. They were dominating the event, and a gold medal was imminent. Jaycie, Amy, Shannon, and Dominique Dawes had done their part with excellent scores from the judges. This is where the road to triumph for the USA became more prominent. Cheerful chants from the crowd lifted bags of burden from their home team’s shoulders.

Little did they know that with their next shot at the vault, things would drastically change. When the 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu stepped on the platform, things went from great to horrible. She struggled to land properly on both of her vault routines. Moceanu’s attempts put the USA in an anomalous position. Perhaps it was the pressure, perhaps it was the nerves, but everything rested on Strug’s shoulders.

The commentator was right, of course, as she was the only one who could win it for the USA now. Among the thousands at the Dome watching anxiously, clapping intermittently while looking on with nervousness, were her parents. Praying that she lands a score above 9.493.

Kerri was confident, her expressionless face contoured over the nervousness and her grit subdued the sound of her pounding heart. On her first attempt at the vault, Strug dashed down the platform, catapulted in the air and, to everyone’s surprise, fell on her back upon landing, heard a crack in her ankle followed by a sharp pain in her left ankle. She flubbed her first vault, taking a seat on the landing pad. It was as if 32,000 breaths got caught in 32,000 throats inside the Georgia Dome. A U.S. victory was suddenly no longer a lock.

Strug’s parents could not believe what they saw as the pain she was enduring became progressively apparent. Nervousness could be sensed amongst the spectators as it engulfed the Dome. No one could realise the seriousness of the injury. It was only Strug who knew how acute the pain was. However, her determination to win steered her away from thinking about the injury and she let the adrenaline take over.

Her face was contorted, the expected grin displaced by an awful grimace that didn’t coincide with the giddy celebrations erupting all around her. She could feel the blood pumping in her veins as the sound of her coach shouted inside her--Hold on to this landing, hold on to this landing, hold on to this landing--though her left ankle had just been crumpled beneath her and the agony started to stretch up to her leg.

Kerri Strug couldn’t feel her left leg even before she went winging down the runway one last time on the floor of the Georgia Dome last night, but she took the last of her two vaults anyway. She shook off whatever jangling nerves she had after her first missed attempt and answered personal coach Bela Karolyi’s fist-shaking exhortations--“Give me one last vault, give me one last good vault”--with a fervent promise: “I will, I will, I will.”

Being the last U.S gymnast, Kerri Strug left no stone unturned in making a final attempt to clinch the gold medal for her country and that too from Russia. In a moment that will be compared to Mary Lou Retton’s perfect 10 on the vault at the 1984 Los Angeles Games or Shun Fujimoto’s gut-wrenching dismount from the rings with a broken leg to win the 1976 team gold medal for Japan. Strug executed what would become the most talked-about moment of The Magnificent Seven’s gold medal-winning efforts.

Strug put in one final heroic performance. Making all the hard work count, the 18-year-old slammed off the take-off board, slapped her hands down on the vaulting horse with a puff of white resin dust and nailed a landing that she absolutely believed she had to have for the gold medal. She then straightened her body long enough to hop on one foot and turn twice before dropping to her knees with what was later diagnosed as a third-degree sprained ankle. 

Strug gave the most memorable performance of the four days of the Atlanta Games with an astounding 9.712 vault that helped the U.S. win its first Olympic gold award in women’s gymnast competition.

“She is just a little girl who was never the roughest girl...always a little shy, always standing behind someone else,” said Karolyi. “But sometimes this is the person with the biggest ggrrrrrr.”

For Strug, who had always been overshadowed by bigger American stars like Shannon Miller and training mates like Kim Zmeskal, it was a night that permanently carved her name into the most memorable moments of Olympic history.

“I knew something was wrong with me. I heard something snap,” said Strug. “I kept telling myself not to fall on the vault, or the gold would slip away, and all that hard work and effort would fall apart in a few seconds. I just said a little prayer and asked God to help me out. I don’t know how I did it. I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life.”

Due to the unbearable pain, Strug collapsed onto the landing pad and was immediately taken to the emergency treatment room under the stands. Her ankle was wrapped with bandages and to keep it steady a plastic brace. Hidden to the crowd’s knowledge, who were raucously chanting Strug’s name, she was taken into the arenas warmup area where the team was preparing for the medal ceremony. When the curtains were lifted, team USA proudly paraded down the platform onto the podium. The chatter of the noisy, cheering crowd could inexplicably be heard in the background for Strug. When there was just one last spot left on the podium, out came Strug cradled into Karolyi’s arms choking back her tears as the crowd applauded to her outstanding performance. Kissing the gold placed around her neck, Kerri summoned the strength to stand, one-legged, one last time as the national anthem played. 

In today’s world, the term ‘superhero’ is familiar to many of us. But, contrasted with the 1996 Olympics, none of these green screen cinematic masteries of superheroes can compare to Strug’s efforts. She didn’t have a stunt double. What she did was courageous, it was valiant, and above all, it was genuine. 


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