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There are images that endure and eventually define the Olympic
Games, images whose light outlasts the madness and hullabaloo.
Years from now millions will still remember 18-year-old Kerri
Strug, her left foot gingerly raised, hopping to acknowledge
first one set of judges and then the other before collapsing in
pain, frustration and tears.

They'll remember Bela Karolyi, the coach who had told Strug that
the team needed one more vault, carrying her onto the stand for
the medal ceremony, her ankle, with two torn ligaments,
protected by a temporary cast. Once there Strug, her face a mask
of conflicting emotions, collected with her beaming teammates
the first gymnastics team gold medal ever won by the American

That it was the unsung Strug who found herself in the hero's
role on July 23, rather than one of her more heralded, equally
deserving teammates, was, well, a delicious reminder that the
lore of the Games is created by the games themselves, not by the
media or the promoters. Had Strug's 14-year-old teammate
Dominique Moceanu, vaulting immediately before her, not fallen
on both of her attempts, Strug's extraordinary act of courage
wouldn't have been necessary or, probably, permitted. "I saw Dom
fall the first time," Strug says, "and I thought, I can't
believe it. Then she fell a second time, and it was like time
stopped. The Russians, I knew, were on the floor, which can be a
high-scoring event, and my heart was beating like crazy. I
thought, This is it, Kerri. You've done this vault a thousand

Until Moceanu's twin gaffes, the U.S. women had been virtually
mistake-free through seven rotations of the team competition.
Two days earlier, in the compulsories, which account for 50% of
the scoring, they had nailed 23 of 24 routines to finish ahead
of the world-champion Romanians and a scant .127 of a point
behind the surprising Russians, whose tradition of gymnastics
excellence shows no signs of having slipped since the breakup of
the Soviet Union.

Depth was one factor in the Americans' success. In Moceanu,
Dominique Dawes and Shannon Miller, the U.S. women had three
former or current national champions. Experience was another.
Every member of the U.S. team had participated in at least one
world championship, and Dawes, Miller and Strug were all
veterans of the 1992 Olympics.

But perhaps the most important element in the U.S. success was
that, wonder of wonders, the seven members of this team actually
like each other. They pulled for each other. They subordinated
personal goals for those of the team. Nineteen-year-old Amanda
Borden, voted team captain, set the tone, uncomplainingly
sitting out two rotations and after every routine greeting the
teammate who performed it with a sisterly hug that exuded
considerably more warmth than those usually doled out by Karolyi
and the other most prominent American coach, Steve Nunno.
(Karolyi and Nunno were required to shout instructions and preen
for the television cameras from outside the barriers because
Karolyi's wife, Martha, and Mary Lee Tracy were the official
coaches.) All this was in stark contrast to '92, when the U.S.
women, taking their cue from the bickering coaching staff, were
about as united as a bagful of cats. "The coaches got along so
well this time that we couldn't believe it," says Miller.

"Everyone had a role on this team," says Tracy, whose
interpersonal skills kept the egos in check. "I tried to make
sure everyone's opinion was heard."

Starting orders for rotations--which go a long way toward
determining who qualifies for the individual all-around--were
determined not on reputation but on the gymnasts' performances
at the nationals and the Olympic trials. Strug won the floor and
the vault at the trials. As a result, though she had been
overshadowed her entire career, first by Kim Zmeskal and then by
Moceanu, while toiling in the Karolyis' gym, Strug was the last
American up in those two events.

The gymnasts also did some serious bonding while staying in a
suburban location away from the Olympic Village. Those
whereabouts were as closely guarded a secret as who would light
the Olympic flame. It turned out their home away from home was,
of all things, a fraternity house at Emory University. Connally
House, a stately brick building with six two-story columns
standing sentinel on the portico, provided the team with all the
comforts of home--individual bedrooms, living room furniture,
televisions with VCRs--plus 24-hour security, which made the
frat house look like the target of a bomb threat. The area
around the building was cordoned off with police tape, and a
thick chain was draped across the driveway, just in case any of
the boys from Boit House, the fraternity across the street,
tried to come by for a handstand or two.

Rested, confident, healthy and poised, the U.S. women needed all
of one rotation in the optionals to obliterate the Russians'
lead and pull away from the Romanians. "They looked like a very
strong army, and we looked like a commando unit trying to
survive," says Romanian coach Octavio Belu, whose team had lost
three members to injuries before the competition.

Jaycie Phelps got the U.S. off to a spectacular start on the
uneven bars with a nearly flawless routine, which earned a
9.787, and suddenly the Georgia Dome began to sound like the
football stadium it is. From the uppermost tiers, whence the
gymnasts looked like tumbling kernels of rice, chants of
"U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" reverberated with annoying persistence. As one
American woman after another stuck her dismount, the thunderous
roars of 32,000 voices threatened to blow the waiflike Romanians
off the beam. Strug equaled Phelps's mark on the uneven bars,
Moceanu bettered it with a 9.812, Amy Chow weighed in with a
9.837, Miller matched Phelps's and Strug's score, and Dawes, the
top U.S. overall scorer for the night, topped out the rotation
with a spectacular 9.850.

In one round the U.S. had picked up nearly half a point on the
Russians and taken a lead it continued to extend through the
floor exercise and the beam. With one apparatus left--the
vault--the U.S. led second-place Russia by .897, a commanding
enough margin that several of the Russian gymnasts, apparently
conceding defeat before the start of the floor exercise, broke
down in tears.

Leads, however, as both Miller and Dawes discovered later in the
week during the individual all-around competition, can evaporate
in a heartbeat, and after Moceanu registered only a 9.20 on the
best of her two vaults, the gold was once again up for grabs. By
Strug's own estimation, she hadn't missed her vault--called a 1
1/2 twisting Yurchenko--in practice or competition in at least
three months. "She is the one who can do it anytime, anywhere,"
says Bela. "But seeing [Moceanu's] two falls, and knowing how
important it was, she kind of dove at the vault and hit it at
too flat a trajectory, which killed her momentum. You need more
of an arc."

The most surprised person in the Georgia Dome when Strug found
herself sitting down at the end of her vault was Strug. "My
first thought was, How could you do that?" she says. "Maybe I
lost my concentration worrying about things I shouldn't have
been worrying about. I heard a crack in my ankle, but you hear a
lot of cracks in gymnastics. Then I tried to stand up, and I
realized something was really wrong. I couldn't feel my leg. I
kept thinking with each step it would go away, but it didn't.
Bela was saying, 'You can do it. Shake it out.' I kept saying,
'There's something wrong with me.' But there wasn't time to do
anything about it. You only have 30 seconds between vaults. So I
said a little prayer: Please, Lord, help me out here."

The funny thing was, Strug had never been touted as one of
Bela's fearless little girls with the heart of a lion. She was
the quiet, dependable understudy. "Her basic personality was not
that aggressive," Bela says. "I always had to handle her as a
baby. That's what we called her, the Baby, because she was
always the youngest. Even when I was angry at the group and
threw everyone into the same pot of criticism, she had to be
protected with 'except for Kerri.' And she has not a high
tolerance for pain. She was never the roughest or toughest girl."

So the gold medal now rested on the shoulders--no, on the
sprained left ankle--of the Baby. Strug is, in fact, the baby of
her family, six years younger than her brother, Kevin, and nine
years younger than her sister, Lisa, and she admits to being
spoiled by her parents, Burt, a heart surgeon in Tucson, and
Melanie, a homemaker. But if she is a baby, she's an
extraordinarily willful one. "I could see she was hurt," says
Melanie, "and as a parent, I'd have said, 'Don't do the vault.'
But knowing Kerri, you couldn't have stopped her unless you'd
dragged her off."

Kerri had been drawn to gymnastics since she was a toddler. Burt
remembers watching her tumble around the living room and asking
her to "please walk on your feet. You're always traveling upside

Lisa is a former gymnast who in 1983 trained in the Karolyis'
gym with a certain unknown named Mary Lou Retton. You can guess
the rest. Kerri wanted to do everything her older sister did.
She was coached from age six by Jim Gault, the coach at the
University of Arizona, and Kerri became a fixture around Gault's
college teams. Try this, the older girls would say, and Kerri
would suddenly have learned a new skill. "I saw how in college
everything was team oriented," she says, "and everyone had a lot
of fun. That was my goal before I ever dreamed of competing in
the Olympics."

"She's quiet, driven, an overachiever," says her father. "She's
totally self-motivated and wants to be perfect all the time."

When Strug turned 12, she told her parents she wanted to move to
Houston to train with Karolyi. "I knew if I was going to make
the '92 team," she says, "I had to make a change."

So Strug moved to Houston. She had an aunt and uncle, Ann and
Don Mangold, there, but for convenience she lived with a family
near the gym and visited the Mangolds on weekends. Her parents
visited her every couple of weeks, and while at times she was
lonely, it was a lot like just being away at school. In 1991
Strug became the youngest member of the national team, and at 14
she was the baby of the bronze-medal-winning Olympic team at
Barcelona. She kept her dream of competing in college alive by
turning down all overtures from agents and all appearance fees
for exhibitions, and, after graduating from high school in
Tucson last summer with a 4.0 average, Strug deferred enrollment
at UCLA for a year to concentrate on qualifying for Atlanta.
"I've always said that only a Mary Lou-type opportunity could
keep me from competing in college," says Strug. "Now those words
have kind of jumped up to bite me. A week ago I knew what I was
going to do for the next couple of years. Now agents are calling
and offers are coming in we never dreamed of. Everyone's telling
me I'm the Mary Lou of these Olympics. It's overwhelming."

When Strug watches the tape of that final, riveting vault, what
she cannot believe is that, somehow, she isn't limping during
her approach. Karolyi says that even the slightest list in her
stride would have destroyed her rhythm and made a successful
vault impossible, but the adrenaline, and possibly the prayer,
allowed her to block out the pain and sprint down the runway
full throttle. "I was thinking about the vault and nothing
else," Strug says. "I felt pretty good in the air, but I'd felt
good the time before, too. Then when I landed, I heard another
crack. A lot of people are criticizing Bela for encouraging me
to do it, but I'm 18. I'm an adult. I make my own choices. It
was definitely my decision and kind of a matter of pride. I
didn't want to be remembered for falling on my butt in my best

As it turned out, the last two Russian competitors, Dina
Kochetkova and Rozalia Galiyeva, turned in mediocre floor
routines, so the Americans would have won by .309 without the
vault that has changed Strug's life. But she couldn't have known
that at the time, and it makes her no less a hero. That final
vault, for which she scored 9.712, aggravated her injury to such
an extent that it torpedoed her longtime goal of competing in
the Olympic individual all-around--she had missed out in 1992 by
.0012. "She had the best day of her life and the worst day of
her life in five seconds," Burt says.

Disappointment, pride and pain all were etched on Strug's face
when Karolyi carried her to the podium to receive her gold
medal. But two days later, while watching her teammates warm up
for the all-around competition (her place in the lineup had been
taken by Moceanu), Strug, still on crutches, showed only the
disappointment. "She was a basket case," says Melanie. "She
cried all through the beginning of the competition. Even after
all that's happened--meeting the President, being a so-called
hero, having all these new opportunities--she said to me, 'I
have not achieved both my goals: a team gold and competing in
the individual all-around.' I told her, 'Kerri, sometimes you
don't reach all your goals in life.'"

It was a lesson reiterated in various ways throughout the week.
Dawes and Miller, who were one-two through the first two
rotations of last Thursday's all-around competition, both
stepped out-of-bounds on the floor exercise, which knocked them
out of medal contention and brought them to tears. The crown
went to world champion Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine, a
17-year-old powerhouse who became the first woman to follow her
world title with an Olympic crown since the Soviet Union's
Lyudmila Turischeva did so in 1972.

On the men's side, Russia won the team gold, but individual
honors went to Li Xiaoshuang, who became the first Chinese man
to win the all-around, by edging Russia's Alexei Nemov by a
scant .049. Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus, a six-time gold medalist
in 1992, was third.

The American men finished a respectable fifth in the team
competition, one place higher than in Barcelona, and had hopes
of a surprise bronze medal until faltering on their nemesis, the
pommel horse. In the all-around John Roethlisberger (7th) and
Blaine Wilson (10th) gave the U.S. its two highest finishes
since the Soviet-boycotted Games of '84.

But it was in Monday's apparatus finals that the American men
finally broke through to the medal stand. Twenty-four-year-old
Jair Lynch, the last man up on the parallel bars, scored a 9.825
to earn a silver medal, giving the men a much-needed
psychological boost as they look ahead to Sydney, four years

The women, emotionally drained from the excitement of winning
the team gold, showed uncharacteristic signs of nerves in the
apparatus finals. Only Chow came through on Sunday, taking the
silver on the uneven bars. On Monday, Miller, who had been
struggling since the individual all-around, redeemed herself by
winning on the beam, her seventh Olympic medal and her first
individual gold.

And Strug? As desperately as she wanted to compete in the
apparatus finals, she withdrew from both the vault and the floor
exercise (in which Dawes replaced her and earned a bronze). U.S.
team physician Daniel Carr said that Strug's ankle would take a
minimum of three weeks to heal, and to compete would do further
damage. But Strug continued to take therapy, continued to work
on her routines in whatever ways she could and continued to try
to wish the swelling away until a few minutes before Monday's
competition. That's when Karolyi told her that the doctor had
said no go. "She did not take it well," he said. "She believed
she could do it, but the miracle cannot happen."

Then again, perhaps it already did.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES In her moment of triumph, Strug was reduced to tears by the pain of her injury. [Kerri Strug weeping]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR.In Miller (left) and Moceanu, the powerful U.S. team featured the past two national champions. [Shannon Miller]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Dominique Moceanu]

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Strug took her last shot because "I didn't want to be remembered for falling on my butt in my best event." [Kerri Strug]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN After Strug blocked out the pain and carried the day, Karolyi transported her to the medal stand. [Kerri Strug holding her ankle]

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [See caption above--Kerri Strug carried by Bela Karolyi]

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER All-around excellence: Li became China's first man to win gold, and Podkopayeva continued her reign. [Li Xiaoshuang]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Lilia Podkopayeva]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. The U.S. women's gymnastics team, three days after winning the gold (from left): Dominique Dawes, Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug, Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps, Amanda Borden and Shannon Miller.