Long after we have forgotten which country won the medal count and by how much, we remember the moments. Abebe Bikila running barefoot through the streets of Rome to win the marathon for Ethiopia. Mary Lou Retton needing a perfect 10 to win the women’s gymnastics all-around title in Los Angeles and getting it. Canadian Silken Laumman strapping herself into a rowing shell so that she could hold her shattered leg steady long enough to win a bronze medal in Barcelona.
Amid complaints about buses that either run late, slow or not at all and a computerized results system that is slower than an abacus, Kerri Strug, a 4-foot-9, 90-pound gymnast from Houston, gave us one of those moments Tuesday night at the Georgia Dome. We needed one to remind us that the Olympics are not about transportation and technology but athletes and achievement.
One of the great Olympians, two-time decathlon gold medalist Daley Thompson of Great Britain, once said that every athlete at one point in his or her career has to stare into the abyss and decide within a matter of moments whether to challenge the darkness.
Strug had 45 seconds.
The last of six U.S. gymnasts on the last apparatus of the team competition, the so-called anchor, she had landed after her first vault, heard a pop in her left ankle and fallen to the mat.
Feeling like her entire leg was on fire, she limped back up the runway, not even glancing at her predictably low score of 9.162, and looked toward her coaches for guidance. Martha Karolyi looked back at her hopefully but said nothing. Bela Karolyi shouted that she needed a 9.6 on her second vault. “You can do it,” she heard her teammates scream over the crowd of 32,040.
She said a short, silent prayer and made her decision. She would challenge the darkness.
Anesthetized by adrenaline and determination, she approached the apparatus with even more speed than before, catapulted herself into the air for 1 1/2 rotations and landed solidly on both feet.
As the pain shot through her leg, she heard another pop. Still, she gritted her teeth, lifted her left foot a few inches off the mat to take the pressure off the ankle and raised her arms over her head. She did not let go of that pose until she was sure that the judges registered that she had aced the landing. Then she collapsed.
She was carried off the stage, placed on a stretcher and taken from the arena. She would not know until much later that her score was 9.712. But that was a detail. What she did know immediately was that she had set off a celebration like she had never seen before among her teammates and coaches, assuring them that the U.S. women would win the team gold for the first time in the Olympics.
“I knew if I didn’t do it, we weren’t going to win the gold medal,” she said. “I thought everything we had worked for was going to fall apart in a few seconds.”
As we now know, the United States would have won even without Strug’s second vault. After two days of competition in compulsory and optional routines, the Americans finished with an advantage of more than eight-tenths of a point over the favored Russians. The Russians could have won only if their last competitor on the floor exercise had scored 10.8. Since the ultimate score is 10.0, she would not have gotten that in Novosobirsk, much less Atlanta.
It was an ecstatic group of U.S. gymnasts and coaches who met the media later in a tent outside the Georgia Dome. They were minus Strug. The sign outside the door said that she was at Crawford Long Hospital.
It was a not-so-subtle reminder that moments of glory for athletes often come with a price. Some reporters wondered whether the one Strug paid was too high.
Did the two U.S. head coaches, including one of Strug’s personal coaches, Martha Karolyi, know that the team had clinched the title even before Strug’s second vault? If not, should they have so that they could have prevented her from risking further injury?
They are legitimate questions. The answers are “no” and “maybe.” But they are irrelevant in Strug’s case because it is not likely that her coaches, even the burly Bela, could have wrestled her off the stage.
Even if she knew that she and her teammates had the team gold all but wrapped around their necks before her second vault, she said later that she would have gone for it because she needed a higher score to insure that she was one of three Americans to advance to Thursday night’s all-around finals.
“I’m 18 years old now,” she said after returning to the Georgia Dome on crutches to meet the press. “I can make my own choices.”
Now she might not go to the all-around finals because of the injury. A member of the U.S. Olympic Committee medical staff, Dr. Dan Carr, said that she has a severely sprained ankle and that there is a 50-50 chance she can compete Thursday. Realistically, the odds are probably less.
But whether she made the right or wrong choice, it was hers to make. Four years ago, when Strug was the youngest member of the U.S. gymnastics team in Barcelona, she barely missed the all-around finals. Because of that disappointment, she vowed to stay in the sport through the Atlanta Olympics.
It was not an easy four years. She left Bela Karolyi in search of the perfect coach for her quiet, intense temperament. Five coaches later, she decided that he was it and returned to his gym in Houston last year.
“When I looked back, I didn’t want to say, ‘Well, I should have gone back to Bela and done something,’ ” she said the other day. “I know a lot of gymnasts don’t like his style. They like a more relaxed, not as disciplined program. But I like his training methods better.”
Even some coaches that she left felt she was better off with Karolyi.
“Bela and Kerri, it’s like E.T. with the magic finger,” said Steve Nunno, who coached Strug alongside Shannon Miller for two years in Oklahoma.
Karolyi forged her performance early this year at the prestigious McDonald’s Cup in Fort Worth. The star of his gym, 14-year-old national champion Dominique Moceanu, was entered, but Karolyi kept her out of the competition. He said that she had a heel injury, but the other reason was that he wanted to give Strug a chance to step forward. She did, winning the title to give her a much-needed confidence boost.
“Since then, she’s been a running engine,” Nunno said.
When she finally stalled Tuesday night, some critics of Karolyi’s might have grimaced when he carried her in his arms onto the stage for the medal ceremony. It was a dramatic entrance, sure to be beamed via television to billions worldwide. It is true that wherever the cameras are, he seems to be.
But, in this case, he was right where he was supposed to be. Again, it was her choice.
* THEY DID IT: U.S. women come from behind for first gold medal in team competition. A1