Wow, it has been far too long since my last post, but good things come to those who wait...or put it all on the line in front of the world at the Olympics for their teammates.
Just ask 2x Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug. Wait...you don't know who Kerri Strug is? What rock have you been living under?!
Born Kerri Allison Strug in Tuscon, Arizona, U.S.A., Strug began competing in gymnastics when she was 8 years old (an age at which my life basically revolved around G.I. Joe, cartoons and little league soccer). Kerri spent over a decade with coach Jim Gault before making the first great leap in her career. In 1991 Strugg began training with legendary Romanian coach Béla Károlyi (you know, the guy who also trained Nadia Commaneci, maybe you've heard of her?). The move came at an opportune time for young Strugg as she also joined the U.S. National Team. Sure, I'm skipping a lot of the details, but I want to get to the good stuff. Like the fact that in 1992, at age 14 Strugg won a team bronze medal at the Barcelona Summer Games. Did I mention that she was the youngest member of the entire U.S. delegation to Spain? I wonder if she got carded a lot...
Strug was left with a big decision after the '92 Games as Coach Béla Károlyi announced he was retiring. Should she find a different coach and continue to compete, or call it quits with a bronze medal on the shelf? Her inner fire wasn't ready to die down just yet, so Strug chose to move to Edmond, Oklahoma (where I grew up, FYI) to train with coach Steve Nunno alongside another well-known gymnast, Shannon Miller (another FYI, my sister danced with her in Oklahoma). Unfortunately, Strug faced several challenges in Oklahoma and suffered from a pretty serious stomach injury (ya, try doing anything in gymnastics with a stomach injury).
That isn't to say the future was dark for Strug. In fact, at the 1993 Nationals, Strug placed 3rd in the all-around, 2nd on the uneven bars, and 3rd on floor exercise. She completed the Yurchenko ½ vault, but after a weak second vault she left without a medal in the event. Decision time again. Strug chose to head back home to Tucson where she began a Rocky-like training routine (ok, maybe not that bad) with Arthur Akopian. Akopian was assisted by Strug's first coach, Jim Gault, who started teaching Keri the sport when she was 3. "Mrs. Strug, look at Keri walking!" "Lady, you should see her do a floor routine!"
The training atmosphere was superb for Strug, something she needed after her Oklahoma struggles. But as every athlete knows, challenges are always mixed in with the achievements and blessings.
In 1994 after during a routine on the uneven bars, Keri bounced off the bar which caused her to release too early on her transition to the low bar. Yup, cringe time. Strug dropped off the high bar backwards and landed in a slightly twisted position on the ground. Flexible, yes, but indestructible, no. Keri was placed on a stretcher and rushed to Desert Regional Hospital where she was diagnosed with a severely strained back muscle that would require a lot of rehab. Undefeated, Strug worked her butt off and made it to the 1994 World Championships.
In 1995, Strug and her coaches faced a big dilemma: because of NCAA recruiting rules, Jim Gault was restricted in his coaching so in July Keri headed out to train at Aerials Gymnastics in Colorado Springs, Colorado with Tom and Lori Forster who helped her place 5th at the '95 Nationals in the All-Around competition and 3rd on the Uneven Bars. Strug set her sites higher and ended up winning a bronze at the 1995 World Championships with her teammates. She continued to train with the Foresters until the Big Announcement came: Bela Karolyi was coming out of retirement (he must have gotten bored). Strug chose to move back to Houston to train with Bela in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. WIth the training she received under Gault, the Foresters and Karolya again, Strug crushed the competition at the 1996 American Cup AA by almost .5 points. Now, .5 doesn't sound like a lot, but the truth is it was a huge margin under the old scoring system. Strug wasn't done yet, either. She placed 1st on the Floor Exercises and Balance Beam and 2nd on the Vault and Uneven Bars in the event finals. Leaving her weight-loss struggles and stomach problems in the past, Strug looked to the future and it was bright.
Olympic gold-medal bright.
I have to admit, one of my favorite movies is the classic Western, The Magnificent Seven with Yule Brener, Steven McQueen and James Coburn. Who would have thought that 36 years after the movie was flimed another group titled the Magnificent 7 would make Olympic history? During the 1996 Games held in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, after the individual events the Russian delegation prepared for the team competition with a very narrow, but still nail-bitingly sufficient, lead. History came down to the final rotation on the final day of the team competition, July 23, 1996.
Going into the finals, the Russian team was on the floor exercise and the U.S. on vault, the U.S. had gained an impressive 0.897-point lead over the competition. But everyone watching knew the truth: it was still close. Too close. The Russians were poised to steal the gold if the U.S. women faltered in any way. And falter some did. As the nation held its breath, the first four American gymnasts landed their vaults, but the landings were less than clean with steps and hops mixed in. The drama only intensified when American Dominique Moceanu fell twice; the judges gave a frowning score and all eyes turned to Keri Strug, the veteran Olympian who while accustomed to pressure was only too aware that is was up to her now.
Groans and sighs filled the stadium when Strug under-rotated her first landing which caused her to fall and damage her ankle, earning a score of 9.162 points. Why did the make a second attempt? It's a fair question, especially when you retrospectively consider that the Russian's final floor routine from Roza Galieva earned a poor score. The math of the moment dictated that Dominique Moceanu's score would have been sufficient to beat the Russians even if Strug had not performed a second vault (the rules are that the lowest score for each team was dropped).
But that wasn't the problem. Russia's Galieva may have done poorly on her floor routine, but she was headed up towards the vault to perform right after Strug. The competition was too close.
"Do we need this?" Strug asked, all too aware of the throbbing in her ankle. Coach Bela Karolyi replied, "Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold. You can do it." No one who watched the scene unfold can forget the impish champion, Kerri Strug limp to the end of the runway for her second attempt. Put yourself in her shoes (barefooted though she was). Your nation is watching. You've trained for this moment you're whole life. Your team needs you. The gold is within reach. But there's a risk involved. How bad is your ankle? What happens if you twist it and make it worse? Is your career over? What if the damage is irreparable?
People often say that a real champion doesn't feel fear; they're strong, brave and never falter. That's only half true. Everyone feels fear; champions just push through it and the pain and that's exactly what Strug did. Somehow she found the strength, somehow she found the courage. Running down the lane, Strug hit the vault and landed perfectly (albeit briefly) on both feet before hopping onto one foot to salute the judges.
She had done it. And the world would salute this brave young woman in the years to come for her triumph over fear and pain. But the pain was there and it was excruciating. Strug collapsed to her knees and you could see it on her face; the battle was over but she was wounded. Sportscaster John Tesh called out, "Kerri Strug is hurt! She is hurt badly." Hurt badly, but her vault earned a score of 9.712, guaranteeing the Americans the gold medal. The Russians could not defeat the Magnificent 7 and their champion, Keri Strug. Karolyi carried Strug to the medals podium to join her team, after which she was treated at a hospital for a third-degree lateral sprain and tendon damage.
Rightly so, Strug became a national hero for her act of courage and sacrifice (though she did have very strong personal reasons for making the second vault). After the Games she visited with U.S. President Bill Clinton, appeared on various TVshows, made the cover of Sports Illustrated (no, not the swimsuit edition) and appeared on a Wheaties cereal box with her teammates.
Shortly after her feat, Strug announced her retirement and enrolled in UCLA where she was a member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority before transferring to Stanford University where she earned a Master's degree in Sociology. After graduation, Strug worked as an elementary school teacher at Tom Matsumoto Elementary School in San Jose, CA before moving to Washington, D.C. in 2003.
She worked as a staff assistant with the U.S. Office of Presidential Student Correspondence, moved to a job at the store of the General Counsel in the Treasury Department, and in March 2005, joined the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention staff as a presidential appointee. Strug has also been an active marathon runner, having run marathons in Houston, New York, Boston and Chicago.
And the "little princess" has a happily ever after: she married Robert Fischer at the Skyline Country Club in Tucson, Arizona on 25 April 2010.
"I know about hard work and sticking in there. Times aren't always going to be fabulous. There are rough times, but you work through them."