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Her first impulse was the instinctive one--Hold on to this landing, hold on to this landing, hold on to this landing--though her left ankle had just buckled beneath her and the pain was rifling up her leg. Her face was contorted, the expected grin displaced by an awful grimace that didn't coincide with the giddy celebrations erupting all around her.

American gymnast 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."

She was the last U.S. gymnast on the last apparatus of the last day of the women's team competition. She thought she needed to stick her last vault for the U.S. to clinch the gold medal over Russia. In a moment that will be compared to Shun Fujimoto's gut-wrenching dismount from the rings with a broken leg to win the 1976 team gold medal for Japan or--for sheer drama--to Mary Lou Retton's perfect 10 on the vault at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Strug provided the most memorable athletic moment of the first four days of the Atlanta Games with a teeth-grinding 9.712 vault that helped the U.S. win its first Olympic gold medal in the women's team event.

The U.S. would have won the gold without Strug's last vault, but neither she nor her teammates knew that at the time. And without the benefit of that knowledge, the 18-year-old Tucson native slammed off the takeoff board, slapped her two 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 found the strength to straighten her 4'9", 87-pound body just long enough to hop on one foot and turn twice--once to each table of judges--before dropping to her knees with what was later diagnosed as a third-degree sprained ankle.

"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."

The U.S. finished with a two-day total of 389.225 points, just ahead of second-place Russia (388.404) and third-place Romania (388.246). Had Strug not completed the final vault, the U.S. would have had a score of 388.713, a scant .309 of a point better than the Russians.

For Strug, who had languished in the shadows of bigger American stars like Shannon Miller and training mates Kim Zmeskal and Dominique Moceanu, it was a night that indelibly etched her into 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."


Truth is, the Americans never expected the result to be close enough to need any heroics. Strug and the rest of the U.S. team--Miller, Moceanu, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes and Jaycie Phelps--sprang from the gate and erased the Russians' .025 first-day lead with a stunning series of routines on the uneven bars, the Americans' first apparatus of the optional competition. Then they widened their lead on the balance beam.

Heading into the vault--the last of the four apparatuses--the U.S. women held a healthy .897-of-a-point lead over Russia and a 1.055-point cushion over third-place Romania. Russian star Svetlana Chorkina had conceded defeat and was sobbing before her team began its final rotation, in the floor exercise. All the Americans needed to do was perform adequately and they could start primping for the medal ceremony.

Though a few murmurs rose when Miller, the rock-steady anchor of the U.S. team, took a short hop on her landing and scored a respectable 9.7, there was still no urgent reason to worry--not until the 14-year-old Moceanu, following two spots after Miller, landed on her backside on both of her vaults to finish with a best of 9.2.

Strug was up next, and when she flubbed her first vault as well--landing on the back of her heels and 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. Russia still had its ace, Rozalia Galiyeva, about to compete in the floor exercise--a point Karolyi and his wife, Martha, the U.S. women's coach, later made to defend his decision to urge Strug to make her final attempt. "Nothing was going to keep Kerri from that second vault," Martha said.

Nor from the medal ceremony. Immediately after she collapsed in pain, Strug was carried off the floor to the first-aid station under the stands. Unbeknownst to the crowd, she was wheeled back into the arena's warmup area on a gurney as the teams prepared backstage for the medal ceremony. Her ankle was swaddled in Ace bandages and a plastic brace. When the blue curtains parted and the U.S. team grandly marched back out onto the stadium floor, there was one last surprise: Strug, cradled in Karolyi's arms, waving to the crowd and choking back tears as he carried her to the podium. Karolyi gently placed her down on the platform. Another hurrah went up from the crowd. When the gold medals were slung around the necks of the U.S. women, Kerri Strug summoned the strength to stand, one-legged, one last time as the national anthem played.


LASTCOLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Despite a sprained ankle, Strug finished with style, then got a lift from Karolyi. [Kerri Strug standing on one leg]COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Bela Karolyi carrying Kerri Strug next to teammates]COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS, JR. Miller (left) took over the floor and Moceanu flipped on the beam as the U.S. jumped ahead of Russia early. [Shannon Miller]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above--Dominique Marceanu]