U.S. Gymnast Braves Pain for Gold

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kerri Strug couldn't feel her left leg, but she could hear her U.S. coaches and teammates, every one of them, as they pleaded for the gold medal.

"Come on, Kerri! You can do it!" they shouted at her as she hopped on one foot, wondering just what that loud popping noise in her left ankle meant.

"One more vault!"

Strug nearly broke her leg on her first vault in Tuesday night's Olympic women's gymnastic team finals, but it was a poor vault, only a 9.162, and her personal coach, Bela Karolyi, barked up at her on the performance podium: "We need another! We need a 9.6!"

Short of summoning the house doctor, what was Strug to do? She knew the deal: The U.S. women gymnasts were on the brink of their first-ever Olympic team gold medal, her 14-year-old teammate Dominique Moceanu had just landed both of her vault attempts on the seat of her leotard, the second-place Russians were closing quickly and their two best gymnasts were due up next on the floor exercise mat.

"I could feel the gold slipping away," Strug said. "I felt like I had to do it. I felt I owed it to everyone."

So Strug vaulted one more time.

The United States wound up on the top of the victory stand . . . and Strug wound up in the X-ray room at nearby Crawford Long Hospital.

Strug landed her second vault with teeth clenched and eyes watering, bravely holding her feet in place long enough to appease the judges, stood on one leg, then crumbled to her knees and called for help.

Strug had stuck her vault--landing on the first bounce, without a hop or a wobble--which earned a score of 9.712, good enough to put the gold medal out of reach of the Russians.

It turned out that Strug's second vault was not necessary; the U.S. would have won without it. Strug did not know the situation, and Karolyi said he did not know either at the time.

It was a medal Strug received only after being dramatically carried out to the victory stand by the burly, camera-seeking Karolyi, who knows a timeless Olympic moment when he sees one.

In 48 years of Olympic team gymnastics competition, the U.S. women had never won a gold medal, not even in the Soviet-boycotted Los Angeles Olympics of 1984. That year, despite Mary Lou Retton's individual brilliance, the American team took the silver, finishing second to Romania.

Aside from that, the Soviets had dominated this competition, winning every team gold medal from 1952 to 1980, then again in 1988, then one more time under the Unified Team banner in 1992.

The United States won this medal with a total team score of 389.225--more than eight-tenths of a point better than Russia (388.404). Romania took the bronze medal with a score of 388.246.

Strug's clinching vault, the last event of the night for the Americans, left her with two torn ligaments in her left ankle. Team physician Dr. Dan Carr described the injury as a "severe ankle sprain," technically a third-degree sprain. After undergoing X-rays that proved negative, Strug was driven back to the Georgia Dome media center for a late-night news conference. She entered the room on crutches, with her foot encased in a special boot that circulated cold water around the ankle, intended to reduce swelling.

"I have a lot of mixed emotions tonight," Strug said. "It's great the USA got the gold medal. I still can't believe it. I'm really happy for that.

"At the same time, I'm a little bit upset with my physical aspect. . . . I've waited and trained for four years to compete in the all-arounds, and now that might be taken away from me."

The top-ranked 36 gymnasts in the team competition qualify for the individual all-around finals, to be held Thursday at the Georgia Dome. Then, next Monday and Tuesday, the top eight ranking gymnasts on vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise compete in the individual apparatus finals.

Strug qualified for the all-around, vault and floor exercise finals, but Carr gave her only a "50-50" chance of being physically sound enough to compete.

Other U.S. qualifiers were Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes in all-around, Dawes on the vault, Dawes and Amy Chow on the uneven bars, Miller and Moceanu on the balance beam and Moceanu on floor exercise.

In their first three events of the team finals--uneven bars, beam and floor exercise--the Americans did not produce an individual score lower than 9.6 out of a possible 10.0, exceptionally strong numbers. They entered their last event of the night, the vault, ahead of the Russians by 0.897, a lead they tried to protect with conservative, safe but solid routines.

In women's gymnastics, competitors are allowed two vault attempts, with the lower score discarded. Jaycie Phelps led off for the U.S. with a high score of 9.662, followed with Chow (9.712), Miller (9.7) and Dawes (9.762).

All was going smoothly until the youngest American, tiny Moceanu, fell on both of her vaults. Her first was scored 9.137, her second 9.2.

That put the pressure on Strug, an 18-year-old from Houston who will enroll and compete for UCLA in the fall. Strug would be the Americans' last competitor of the night, and with her first vault, she followed Moceanu by taking another seat on the landing mat.

Three falls in three vaults.

American nerves were beginning to show.

Strug said she heard "a snap in my left foot" after she landed the first vault. "I was scared," she said. "It really hurt.

"Everybody was yelling at me, 'Come on, you can do it!' But I'm out there saying to myself, 'My leg, my leg. You don't understand. Something's really wrong here.' "

Strug limped over to Karolyi and told him, "I can't do it. I can't feel my leg."

Karolyi said he thought Kerri had dislocated her ankle. "That or maybe a stress fracture," he surmised. Still, he instructed Strug to get back out there and take one for the team.

"I said, 'You have to do it, Kerri,' " Karolyi said. "She said, 'I will, I will.' She was like the little engine that could."

Karolyi said he had no qualms about sending a gymnast with a possible leg fracture back onto the runway for one more vault.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime situation," he reasoned. "If it was me, I would go there with a broken leg. I would do anything. This was the gold medal.

"I think Kerri showed the greatest sense of responsibility with what she did."

Karolyi said he felt Strug needed to score at least 9.6 on her last vault and erase Moceanu's 9.2 mark. (Six gymnasts compete in each event, but only the top five scores count toward the team total.) Actually, the U.S. could have still won the title by using Moceanu's score and bypassing Strug's final vault, but Karolyi claimed, "We did not know that at the time."

Had Karolyi or another coach told Strug the gold medal was already clinched, she said she would have foregone her second vault.

"I would have saved my leg for later," Strug said, "because I think I did more damage on the second vault."

So Strug vaulted--on blind faith and a tingling left ankle. With her landing, she spawned a new catch-phrase in the sporting lexicon--the agony of victory.

"I don't want to sit here and second-guess anyone," Strug said. "I just knew I had to do it. And I did it."

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