On July 23, 1996 Kerri Strug became America's golden girl. The gymnast overcame pain to make history for the United States with an unprecedented victory in the all-around team competition at the Atalanta Olympics. While not the most talented of the "Magnificent Seven" her courage saw the tiny 18-year-old become an icon. A quarter of a century on, the sight of Strug being carried to the podium by her coach – into a world of flowers, kisses, and celebrity endorsements – remains etched in the memory.
The American dream is as old as the New World. Born the very moment the Pilgrim Fathers set foot on the shores of Massachusetts, it can be traced through the bloodline of their descendants after establishing those unknown lands. The upheavals of history and everyday life have thrown obstacles in its path. But the American dream is still alive and well; it remains a beacon showing the way for the people of a young nation which has not yet turned 250 years old.
Like others, Kerri Strug had a dream. As a child, she wanted quite simply to become a champion. To achieve her goals, she had no choice but to commit to them, believe in them, and remain determined to the extreme. This included pushing the pain barrier on a daily basis. And on the day she finally struck gold, she suffered like never before. If sporting achievement is synonymous with pain, then she had to endure torture to attend her own coronation.
From the Clay of Rome to the Ali of Atlanta: Fire and flame
The Essential Olympic Stories: How Strug won unprecedented gold
One for all and all for one
In her wildest dreams, Strug was Mary Lou Retton, the five-time medallist at the Los Angeles Games and champion of the all-around. Little Kerri was just six years old and had less than three years of gymnastics in her legs. Already, at this tender age, she pictured the moment she would stand atop the podium, a gold medal around her neck, the Star-Spangled Banner playing in the background.
In Atlanta, 14 years after Retton's California dreams, Strug also took gold as she ensured that the Americans finally emerged from the long shadow cast by the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Her joy on the podium was multiplied since it was an unprecedented collective achievement, as tears of pain from a sprained ankle and torn ligaments became tears of relief and happiness. She later recalled:
I thought it would be like Mary Lou. Instead, I found myself crying, [my coach] Bela Karolyi was carrying me, and I didn't even have my sweatpants on
Her feat was all the more remarkable given Strug arguably did not possess the inherent talent to succeed on her own. But without her contribution, her USA teammates would probably not have risen to the occasion either. One for all. All for one.
On July 23, 1996, Strug – all 4ft 9in and 87lb of her – became a queen of gymnastics and an uplifting national icon. An inspirational symbol which has endured ever since because, for the quarter of a century that has passed since that compelling made-for-TV drama, her fellow Americans have been able to recall a heady evening that was completely unforgettable in every way.
Never before had the Americans won the all-around team competition, neither in the World Championships or at the Olympics. Resilience, selflessness and dedication were the ingredients of this achievement. But the gold medal had its downside. Even if it's always worth living, the American dream also has its flaws – as Kerri Strug can attest.
'My little sister will go to the Olympics one day'
Before Kerri there came Lisa – her older sister. A talented gymnast, the elder Strug sibling quickly realised that it was her younger sister who had that something extra which could, one day, see her achieve something big. When Kerri was just nine, Lisa used to brag to her friends that she had "a little sister that was one day going to be in the Olympics".
While some parents live the thrill of their children's success vicariously, Strug's father and mother always took a step back when it came to their daughter's career. For a while, Strug wanted to follow her cardiac surgeon father's footsteps and become a paediatrician. But this idea didn't last very long. Quickly, gym took over and won the showdown hands down.
To make the cut, Strug always knew that she would have to make sacrifices, double her efforts and submit herself to an iron discipline. She readily cast away any thoughts of a normal childhood and adolescence. "A gymnast's career is pretty short," she said when only 14.
Most of them peak at 15 or 16. When I get through with this, I have the rest of my life to do all those other things. This means too much to me.
Strug threw herself headlong into her all-consuming quest and passion. Taking part in meets as soon as she turned eight-years-old, she soon understood that this would not be enough. To become the best, she had to be trained by the best. And as it turned out, Lisa had already passed through his hands.
Bela Karolyi had made ripples when guiding Nadia Comaneci to her perfect 10 on the asymmetric bars in Montreal in 1976 before emigrating to the United States, where he shaped Mary Lou Retton into an Olympic champion.
This was January 1991. Strug was 13 and she expressly asked to join the ranks of the Romanian legend. Karolyi had managed to flee Romania in 1981. Since then, he had lived in a ranch north of Houston, near Huntsville. It covered 2,000 hectares and housed an elite gymnastics academy run behind closed doors.
While Strug's uncle and aunt lived nearby, this separation from her family was heart-breaking for Strug's parents. "I was devastated," her mother said. "It was all the harder since my son had also left home to go to university."
A vocation for bodies and souls
Work and sacrifice prop up the glamour and grace of artistic gymnastics. The sport is a vocation for bodies and souls. To get there, athletes have to work, push their bodies beyond its limits on a daily basis – to the point that basic functions such as growth are impacted. Already pint-sized, Strug was not too concerned about this – which was just as well. For under Karolyi's watch, there was no room for enjoyment.
Karolyi was renowned for his unbending coaching style and extreme rigorous discipline. He expected nothing less from his pupils than total dedication. An iron fist in a steel glove, Karolyi was a tall man with a bushy moustache and a heavy accent. He slept just four hours per night, preferably from one o'clock to five o'clock, and spent most of the day in the gym. His philosophy was simple: whoever works hardest reaps the most rewards.
Of the 500-odd girls attending his gym, only the top six – or "Karolyi's six-pack" – worked directly with him and his wife, Marta. Strug was one of the "happy few" in whom he saw the most promise. Not simply because of her talent, but also because of her ability to endure the toughest workloads.
"Gymnastics is not for fun," Karolyi said at the beginning of the 90s.
It is not golf. I believe everything worthwhile is hard. Mildness is not the proper approach. You always have to be demanding, always asking for more. As long as you want to create something better, you have to be hard. If you want to be the best, you have to get the most out of every minute.
Glory – but at what price?
For many, this survival-of-the-fittest approach proved a bridge too far. The very nature of training requires athletes to know – and go beyond – their limits. Wilfully and on a regular basis. To the point of being crushed. Many of his flock would later complain about his methods once they had flown the nest.
These complaints were only really taken seriously following the fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal. The national team doctor served for many years in the heart of Karolyi's ranch, and, in February 2018, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of hundreds of sexual assaults on athletes – both aspiring and established – who had been taken under his wing.
The testimonies of many gymnasts have since revealed the alleged systematic abuse they suffered at the hands of the Karolyis, who were accused not only of being heavy handed, but driving their protégées to develop eating disorders and low self-esteem. In 2018, Karolyi's ranch closed its doors, swept away by the scandal.
Dominique Moceanu, one of Strug's gold medal-winning teammates from Atlanta, had long accused Bela and Marta of the physical and verbal abuse of young girls. Some of their alleged behaviour bordered on brutality. That being said, many of Karolyi's most prominent athletes – including Strug – always vehemently defended him against these allegations.
On several occasions, Strug sided with her former coach. While admitting she did "not really" like Karolyi as a person, she said in 2012: "I feel extremely indebted to Karolyi. I chose to train with him. He's not there to be my best friend or a father figure. He's there to get me to be the very best gymnast that I possibly can, and he pushes you past your comfort zone each and every day."
Training with Karolyi was a 10-hour day, six days a week. The only days off were Sundays, July 4th and three days over the Christmas break. Even then, these holidays still involved the strict monitoring of food intake. For instance: pizza was fine – just without cheese. This tyrannical focus on weight meant some gymnasts were reportedly limited to consuming as few as 900 calories per day.
But Strug was hungry for success, so clung to her dream. In 1992, five hundred years after Columbus first set foot in the Americas, Strug found herself crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction, in search of Olympic gold. Just 14 years old when she arrived in Barcelona, Strug was the youngest Olympian of those Summer Games after winning her place at the US trials at Baltimore. All of the work and sacrifices she had made were paying off.
She would leave Catalonia with a bronze medal in the team event behind the unified team of former Soviet Republics and Romania (the two historical super-powers of the all-around team competition). But she failed to make the cut for the individual event, edged out by her teammate (and fellow Karolyi protégée) Kim Zmeskal.
Wilderness years after bittersweet bronze
Strug was far from content as she returned home with a bronze medal around her neck, having fallen short in her personal quest for individual medals. "Not getting what I wanted in Barcelona made me want to get it at Atlanta that much more and allowed me to work that much harder to get there," she would recall in her still shrill voice in 2016 when celebrating the 20th anniversary of her Atlanta exploit.
She had been so young at Barcelona that she had not even been allowed to attend the opening ceremony. Although she didn't feel so at a time, she would later accept that it was "a good thing" that success had not come to her so early, for she may have packed things up afterwards. As things stood, Strug was prepared to put her head down and fight for her dreams – stoically trading in the remainder of her childhood for her pursuit of glory.
"Winning individual medals was why I had stuck in for another four years after Barcelona. So my mindset at the time was that I didn't accomplish all my goals, that I didn't win as many medals as I had wanted," she said. For a teenager, four more years of hard graft and commitment must have felt like an eternity. But Strug had unfinished business.
There was one glaring concern: Karolyi, having turned 50, decided to retire after the 1992 Games. Strug suddenly found herself without a coach or mentor. Things soon spiralled out of control. A sustained period of instability and doubt – "the worst years of my life" – saw Strug leave Houston for stints at Edmond, back home in the sun-baked city of Tucson, then at Colorado Springs. She even tried returning to her first coach, Jim Gault. But nothing gelled. Her form and confidence dipped, and she was ravaged by injuries.
It was in Edmond, at the end of the winter of 1993, where she suffered a setback she would not have wished upon ever her greatest rival. A tear in the stomach muscle side-lined her from gymnastics for six long months. This coincided with severe weight loss and then, once back home in Arizona, another six-month break followed after injuring her back in a fall from the uneven bars. Lesser souls would have given up on the dream. But Strug's exceptional courage and resilience pushed her to remain focused on a goal that seemed so distant despite its rapid approach.
The turning point in her Olympic quest came when Karolyi decided to come out of retirement to coach Zmeskal and the new prodigy, Moceanu, who had won the all-around competition at the 1995 national championships. Strug soon resumed training with Karolyi. While most had higher hopes for Moceanu, Strug, with her coach and confidence back, did enough to earn her ticket to Atlanta.
East versus West
The Atlanta Games were the Centennial Games. The capital of the US city of Georgia had beaten Athens to host the landmark event, throwing all symbolism and romanticism out the window. Olympism had entered an era of realism. Barcelona and Atlanta were four years and a world apart. But this did nothing to hold back Strug who, stirred from her slumber, had seen her dream revitalised.
Four years on, and the hushed atmosphere of the Palau Sant Jordi on the Montjuïc hill was followed by the fiery cauldron of the Georgia Dome which, transformed to host the gymnastic events, awaited one thing: US gold medals. This thirst for glory whipped up an already partisan crowd to create a climate completely out of sync with what had gone on before. The competitors from the East, among others, felt they were clearly at a disadvantage.
The Soviet Union had won every women's team gold between 1952 and 1988 – save for the boycotted 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, when Romania deputised with golden aplomb – before the post-Soviet Unified Team stepped onto the top rung of the podium at Barcelona in 1992.
By contrast, the Americans' best finish came on home soil in 1984 when they won silver in the Soviets' absence. The bronze medal in 1992 had given Team USA measured hope – and they had kept the Russians out of the medals in the 1995 World Championships. If no one expected them to win, they at least had a chance – and that was already something.
As part of the so-called "Magnificent Seven" or "Mag 7" – a team blessed with established veterans and vibrant newcomers – Strug had almost been an afterthought. The shy, bashful 18-year-old – who Karolyi once called "a sacred bird" and who often broke into tears at the drop of a hat – was perhaps best known for being unable to perform in the spotlight. But her versatility, solidity and team spirit made her an ideal component. Strug may have been more sensitive and withdrawn than the others, but she was a team player.
"Kerri was like a running engine – but not a smooth, running engine; a hard, strong, aggressively running engine," Karolyi said. "I've seen her like I've never seen her before. I saw in her eyes the fire, desire and hunger like never before. She was determined to make it – and she showed by her performances every day in the gym."
Strug received very little media attention in a team whose stars were newcomer Moceanu and the five-time Olympic medallist and five-time world champion, Shannon Miller. At 14, Moceanu represented both the present and future of American gymnastics. The girls of Team USA did not live in the Olympic Village and prepared remotely, away from the glare, at Emory University.
The day of the great denouement came. Everything had gone swimmingly for Team USA on July 23, 1996 until the final rotation, with the Russians on floor exercise and the Americans on vault. The home favourites held a commanding 0.897-point lead over their rivals; only a cataclysmic collapse stood between them and gold. But was the sense of occasion getting to the "Magnificent Seven"?
The first four girls – Jaycie Phelps, Amy Chow, Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes – had landed their vaults, albeit far from cleanly. Then came Moceanu, who could have sealed things for the U.S. with a score of 9.493. Despite entering the Games off the back of a stress fracture of the tibia, the little wonder of U.S. gymnastics zipped down the runway with a confidence that diminished with each of her strides. Twice the ground gave way below her feet and she hashed her landing, to the disbelief of the crowd. Her scores of 9.137 and 9.200 set up an unimaginable scenario.
If the crowd at the Georgia Dome could no longer hold its breath, the fans were soon on a life-support machine when Strug stepped up. She also began to have doubts. "When Dom fell the first time, I thought: 'It's not possible – she never falls'," Strug explained after the competition. The jump was something Moceanu had repeated a thousand times without fault. Except that night, when the weight of expectation got the better of the laws of gravity, and she had under-rotated.
"I thought, 'There's no way she's going to fall twice'. Then I watched her do the exact same vault again, and fall, and, oh my goodness, the butterflies in my tummy, they started rumbling a little bit more." Strug later said during her side-career as a motivational speaker.
It was all slipping away for the U.S. So, I decided, 'You've trained so hard for this, for so long, and you're perfectly capable of doing this vault, so get it together and try one more time'.
You could say that this was the moment Strug had been waiting for her whole life. For once, she found herself in the spotlight, taking centre stage. Then lightning struck for a third time. If the crowd was on its feet, Strug was not: like Moceanu, she couldn't stick the landing.
"I just did exactly what my teammate had done and opened up too early. And I, too, fell on my bottom. It was like monkey-see monkey-do, or something. This was like a nightmare, I mean, seriously, I was embarrassed. This was the Olympic Games, I had this opportunity to show the world how hard and long I had worked, and I had kinda choked."
But it was worse than that. While Moceanu had just slipped, Strug had badly injured her ankle on the landing. She'd even heard a snap. Pain ripped through her leg as she jumped up and instantly struggled to put any weight on her left foot. Wincing, she hobbled back alongside the runway, putting on a brave face. But, as sportscaster John Tesh commented on US television: "Kerri is hurt. She's limping. This could be really bad news. Kerri Strug is in trouble."
Strug's score of 9.162 meant the U.S. were yet to be mathematically guaranteed the gold medal – what with the Russians still performing on the floor. The crowd was silenced. What had seemed like a bullfight was now like a penalty shoot-out, with the injured Strug the fifth and final taker in the World Cup Final. A murmur spread through the room. Some Russians were already in tears at the sudden prospect that they might, after all, take home another gold.
'Do we need this?'
Strug was a battler. Her scores on each of the apparatus had helped put the U.S. on the brink of an unprecedented victory and she was prepared to be a martyr to ensure she finished the job. Besides, she could not face letting down her teammates and an entire nation. Pain was nothing new for her, and Karolyi, at least outwardly, had no doubt that she would do what was needed to be done. "Shake it off! You can do it!" he shouted at his protégée from the wings.
But as Strug rubbed her ankle and soothed it with ice, she asked, all the same, 'Do we need this?' The answer may have been in the question, but the Romanian defector was insistent: "Kerri, we need you one more time for the gold. You can do it – you better do it."
Later, Strug vouched that Karolyi's words had done nothing to change her outlook. Her golden destiny, she felt, was always in her hands. She alone had decided to jump one last time. Whatever the cost. "I'm 18 and I can make my own decisions," she said. "I knew when Dominique fell on both vaults the gold was slipping away. I didn't want all our hard work to be gone in a few seconds. I felt like I had to do it, that I owed everyone. I let the adrenaline rush pull me through."
The end would justify the means. Sacrifice, hard work, and pain would equal triumph – this was the Faustian pact she had signed up for. Although it's worth adding that her trainer wasn't so confident. "I never thought Kerri would be able to do it," Karolyi later admitted. "She was just a little girl. She was never the toughest, roughest girl. She would be the last girl I would think would go through the pain and sorrow."
Her run-up was determined; her jump, a Yurchenko twist and a half, close to perfection; her landing, of exceptional courage. "It was like a bomb had gone off," she remembers. The landing was pretty much done on one leg – Strug lifting her left foot as soon as she made the connection with the mat. Visibly in pain, she saluted the crowd and the judges, many of whom were clearly aghast at her bravery.
Amid the applause, Strug collapsed on all fours and the tears started to flow. She was later diagnosed with a third-degree lateral strain of her left ankle and two torn ligaments. The doctors concluded that most of the damage was done on the first jump, the second only exacerbating the injury.
The score was displayed: 9.712. To the great relief and joy of the Georgia Dome, the USA were crowned Olympic champions for the first time. The celebrations of Strug's teammates were muted, given the state of their saviour, currently being propped up by two U.S. staff members. She who had always dreamed of an individual medal had won a team gold which also saw her qualify for the individual all-around finals at the expense of Moceanu. But her Games were over. She had carried a country on her shoulders – to be more precise, on her feet – and one of them finally gave in.
"She felt the burden of being that little sensitive girl who always worried about what everyone else thought about her," her father would say. "I think she didn't want to be remembered for falling on her rear end, she was going to be remembered for doing the best vault that she could possibly do, to get the medal for the team."
Now, America has a habit of favouring legend over reality – especially when it makes a more beautiful story. This day would be no different. Because she may have not known at the time, but Team USA would have still won the gold medal even if Strug had not attempted a second vault. For Dina Kochetkova and Rozalia Galiyeva, two beacons of Russian gymnastics, were currently crumbling on their floor routines. This was wholly unpredicted – like the events of the entire evening.
Carried to the podium in the arms of Karolyi
Hurrying to hospital was never an option. Nor was Strug prepared to be cut out of her gym slippers: she would still need them for the individual all-around, floor and vault finals, she thought with excessive optimism. For now, Strug simply wanted to stand on the podium with her medal. This was why she made all those sacrifices – right up until that evening when pain fused with joy. Strug was determined to make it onto the podium alone - not in a wheelchair - once her ankle and calf were covered in a splint.
But it soon dawned that she would not be able to walk unaided. For once, she found some form of comfort in the arms of a man who was seldom inclined to offer it: Bela Karolyi. "Don't worry, you will be on the podium, I can guarantee it," he promised her, with a smile that transformed his usual icy demeanour. He grabbed his athlete and carried her in a bear hug to the podium in a molten Georgia Dome. In the rush, she had forgotten to put on her tracksuit bottoms. Smiling and grimacing in equal measure, she stood alongside her teammates, the victorious Magnificent Seven.
"Kerri was the most timid little girl. She acted completely against nature. People always think that gymnasts are nice and cheerful, that they cry when the going gets tough. It bores me… Kerri had one last chance to show she had the heart of a tiger. And she did it," Karolyi later gloated.
Four years after Michael Jordan's iconic shrug, Strug's vault became an instant landmark of American sport and an icon of Olympism. But the architect of that gold medal refused to replay the scene for months. If the physical pain wasn't bad enough, the on-going anguish was too much. "It's great the U.S.A. got the gold," she admitted. "I still can't believe it. We made history. I'm ecstatic about that. At the same time, I'm a little upset about my physical aspect."
Strug also didn't have time to dwell on the past. The injury may have precipitated the end of career, but overnight the 18-year-old and her teammates had become national sweethearts. And her star would burn brighter than the others – which would cause a few rifts. For she was never the most talented; she was never the one destined to take the spotlight. But it was Strug who garnered the most attention, who reaped the most rewards, and banked the most money through celebrity endorsements. An estimated one-million dollars in the year following the Games, to be precise.
Bill Clinton, Jay Leno and Beverly Hills 90210
Strug's parents did their best to push their daughter towards a normal life. She enrolled at UCLA as a student and assistant coach – but it was hard to remain anonymous on campus with your face emblazoned across boxes of Wheaties cereal, an honour dating back to 1934 bestowed upon all great American athletes.
She was a guest at President Bill Clinton's 50th birthday party, chewed the fat on national TV with Jay Leno, and even made fun of her own high-pitched, cartoonish voice on Saturday Night Live. She graced the front page of Sports Illustrated and appeared in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210, one of the most legendary series of the Nineties. In a long forgotten (and forgettable) scene at a university campus enrolment, she responds to the central character David Silver's question about whether she was carrying her gold medal on her: "No, I would love to wear it everywhere but that would look pretty silly, right?"
What of the six other members of the Magnificent Seven? They went on tour together and performed all over the United States – but without Strug. Why? Because America's new sweetheart was juggling too many balls and college kept her busy during the week. She asked to join the tour on the weekends, but the promoters turned down the request. So Strug stuck to the chat-show circuit while putting on exhibition performances with Nadia Comaneci and other retired gymnasts. And while she could command $24,000 per performance, her teammates took home only $6,000.
"She had other opportunities, and that's good, but it separated us," Moceanu would explain, with a touch of bitterness. "We were a team – that's how we should have stayed." Shannon Miller said: "The only thing that bothers us is that the team has been neglected. Everyone was essential." To which Leigh Steinberg, Strug's agent, would respond bluntly: "The other girls are just jealous."
To mark the first anniversary of their Atlanta coronation, Strug admitted that she wrote to each of her Olympic champion teammates. Six letters to which she claimed she received zero replies. All because of the fallout from one vault. Here lay the other side of the golden medal; the flipside of the American dream. But it was a dream worth living.
Translated by Felix Lowe
The Essential Olympic Stories: Bob Beamon’s leap of the century
The Essential Olympic Stories: Bob Beamon’s leap of the century