“It is up to her... she is the last to go... she is the only one who can do it.”
It is a good thing Kerri Strug could not have heard the commentator as she stood at her mark at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta getting ready for her first vault attempt in the final of women’s all-round team event in gymnastics at the 1996 Olympic Games.
It was, after all, the event that the Soviet Union dominated for years and years and years. Even the great Nadia Comaneci’s Romanian team could not beat them to Olympics gold. Starting from 1952, Soviet Union had won nine out of the 11 gold medals in this particular event. In the previous edition in 1992, the gold medal went to the Unified Team (that comprised of countries from the former Soviet Union). Romania had won in 1984.
But ‘The Magnificent Seven’ – as Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Jaycie Phelps and Strug were called – were on the brink of history that day. In front of home fans, they were dominating the event and a first-ever gold medal was imminent. Only the vault routine remained for the Americans and Jaycie Phelps, Amy Chow, Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes had done their part with good scores.
Moceanu, the youngest of the team (she was just 14 at that time), struggled with her routines. She could not land properly with both her efforts and suddenly, the pressure was all on 18-year-old Strug, one of the ‘veterans’ of the team, having won bronze in 1992.
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The commentator was right, of course, as she was the only one who could win it for the USA now. A score of 9.493 was needed for Strug, which was not easy but she was capable of that and more. Her parents were among the thousands at the Dome anxiously watching, clapping intermittently while looking on with nervousness.
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“On paper, it looked a foregone conclusion,” read the Olympic.org report of the iconic final. “Strug was an established specialist on the apparatus and opted for a vault that she had landed many times in the past. But not today. Instead, she fell back upon landing, heard a crack in her ankle, and then felt a sharp pain in her left ankle.”
It was now three consecutive attempts that did not go per plan for the Americans. As is the norm, Strug had one more chance to get it right but she is limping back.
Listen carefully and in the video of the event you could sense the nervousness of the spectators without even looking at them. Strug’s parents could not believe what they saw as the pain she was enduring became increasingly evident. No one but she could realise how bad the injury was, she would recount later, but there was no time to reflect on it. She decided to let adrenaline take over.
The camera then turned to Romanian Bela Karolyi who was Strug’s coach. He was yelling “You can do it!” repeatedly.
Can she, indeed.
In what would become the most talked-about moment of The Magnificent Seven’s gold medal-winning efforts, Strug put in one final heroic performance. She struck the landing with just one good ankle, lifted her left foot up and finished her routine with the salutations for the judges to score before collapsing on the mats. She had to be carried off by her coaches, her teammates were looking on nervously...
After a few seconds, it became official: 9.712 and the gold medal was USA’s.
Tears, inevitably, followed.
Strug had to be carried onto the podium by coach Karolyi and after that she was helped up the stairs to the very top of the podium by her teammates Miller, then the most decorated US gymnast, and Moceanu, who was sobbing a while back despite her team’s victory because she stuttered with her last two attempts. It was a moment that symbolised what truly team spirit meant.
As the team recalled their dramatic moments from 1996 after 20 years, Strug said: “I’ll remember the moment on the podium forever. I definitely had some contrasting emotions. I thought I was going to look like Mary Lou Retton [1984 gold medallist] and instead I’m crying. I have no pants on!”
Her jokes aside, it was one of the bravest displays ever seen at the Olympic Games. But the cost of the injury proved too much for Strug on a personal level.
“I look back on that moment and I was devastated I didn’t get to compete further,” Strug, who was unable to contend for individual gold medals because of the vault injury, told Reuters.
“The Olympics is about more than gold medals. It’s about human spirit, the heart and the drive that a lot of athletes have and human beings have in general,” she added.
In the era of Marvel and DC movies, “superhero landing” is a term many of us are familiar with these days. But looking back, none of those cinematic landing moments can hold a candle to Strug’s efforts. It was super, it was heroic, it was supremely brave, and most importantly, it was real.
Watch the videos of those inspiring final moments here:
Members of the Magnificent Seven recall that night:
Kerri Strug, who went on become a motivational speaker among other things, speaks about that final:
Ultimately it is worth remembering that it was a team effort that led USA to the gold medal that day in Atlanta and there were other struggles they had to overcome as well. You can read more about the story of The Magnificent Seven here.