51: Kerri Strug fights off pain, helps U.S. win gold

They vowed that victory would be theirs this time.

The U.S. women's gymnastics team had never won an Olympic team gold medal before and they declared that this time they would not be denied, that they would be t he ones wearing the gold medals around their necks, not the Romanians or the Russians.

So serious was the U.S. women's gymnastics team that to avoid distractions at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 that it secretly stayed in a private area away from Olympic village. They wound up a fraternity house at Emory University, outside Atlanta. The stately building was lined with police tape and a chain was draped across the driveway.

There, the gymnasts bonded like never before, and they emerged from their sanctuary with the steely look of determination in their eyes.

The U.S. is locked up in another captivating battle with Russia. There is just one apparatus left for the U.S. -- the vault -- as it leads second-place Russia by .897, a lead so commanding in the sport that several Russian gymnasts, apparently conceding defeat before the start of the floor exercise, are in tears.

But shockingly, the U.S. lead begins to evaporate after Dominique Moceanu -- one of America's golden girls --- falls not once but twice, registering only a 9.20, wiping out a chunk of the U.S. lead and leaving the gold up for grabs.

The gold medal now comes down to Kerri Strug, the quiet gymnast, the understudy to stars Moceanu, Dominique Dawes and Shannon Miller.

Strug, a 4-foot-9 gymnast from Tucson, Ariz., does not possess the fearlessness, the toughness, the aggressiveness, the heart, and the threshold of pain, of her teammates. At least that's what some people had believed. But as the spotlight in the Georgia Dome focuses on Strug, that perception completely changes.

"When Dom fell the first time, I thought, 'No, I can't believe it. She never falls,'" Strug would tell the media later. "Then she fell a second time, and it was like, 'Forget this. This is a nightmare.' My heart was beating like crazy, knowing that it was now up to me. I thought, 'This is it, Kerri. You've done this vault a thousand times, so just go out and do it.'"

With the crowd on its feet, Strug takes a deep breath and sprints down the 75-foot runway like a woman possessed. She performs a difficult vault that requires a handspring and a twisting dismount. As she descends through the air toward the ground, she slips on her landing and falls on her backside. She also hears a snap in her left ankle. There is disbelief in the crowd. The gold, it appears, is gone when Strug's score -- 9.162 -- is flashed on the board.

Strug falls to her knees, disregarding her injured ankle. Her parents, sitting in the stands, cover their faces. As Strug rises and begins psyching herself up for her second and final vault, pain shoots through her leg. Turns out, she has suffered two torn ligaments in the ankle.

There is chaos on the sidelines. Strug's ankle is throbbing badly. Her head is aching. Her teammates encourage her. The U.S. coaches look up at the scoreboard, then over at the Russians doing the floor exercises. The coaches can't compute quickly enough whether Strug even has to vault a second time, on a sprained ankle, in order to guarantee the American women the gold medal.

Questions abound. Should the U.S. coaches hold Strug back from doing the second vault? But what if she doesn't vault a second time and the Russians wind up winning?

U.S. Coach Bela Karolyi walks over to the ailing Strug, puts his arm around her and says softly, "Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold."

Strug rises from the floor, removes the ice pack from her ankle and says a prayer: "Please, God, help me make this vault." She's performed this vault more than a thousand times. "I know I can do it one more time, injured ankle or not," she thinks to herself.

Karolyi helps Strug rise to her feet and helps her to the runway. "This is the Olympics," she would say later the media. "This is what you dream about from when you're 5 years old. I wasn't going to stop."

The crowd rises and begins applauding wildly. They know it isn't always the superhuman performances that win our hearts in the Olympics. Often, it's the heartfelt ones, like skater Dan Janzen falling.

Strug sprints down the runway on her damaged ankle. Across the way, the Russian gymnasts, stop and watch. Strug leaps high into the air. She performs a back handspring onto the vault, perfectly. Then she descends through the air, toward the ground. Everyone on the sidelines and in the crowd winces, knowing that when Strug lands, it's going to be as painful as someone smashing a medal rod against your ankle.

Strug lands hard on both feet, amazingly without stumbling. Yet when she lands, she hears another crack in the same ankle. She gingerly picks up her damaged ankle and folds it behind her, keeping her balance, to the shock of everyone in the crowd and everyone watching on TV. Her mind tells her body to stand upright for the traditional post-performance pose. She hops on one foot to face one side of the crowd, then hops again to face the other, all the while holding up her injured ankle.

Strug's teammates begin leaping on the sideline. Strug, meanwhile, hops around a quarter turn, arms raised, and forces a big smile for the judges while the Georgia Dome crowd of 32,048 lets out a roar. She holds the pose for a few seconds, just long enough to please the judges, then she falls to the floor and grimaces in agonizing pain as the ovation continues.

She drops to the mat, crying, holding her badly damaged ankle. The crowd goes silent. They all stare at the young gymnast who has just performed the heroic vault. The U.S. coaches and teammates race toward Strug. The bear-sized Karolyi bends down, lifts Strug up and carries her around the gym as the crowd breaks out in chants of, "Kerri! Kerri!"

She is carried off on a stretcher before her score is posted. When 9.712 flashes on the giant scoreboard, assuring the United States of the gold medal, the U.S. gymnasts and the crowd break out in emotional tears of joy.

The Russian athletes stand off to the side, stunned, speechless. It's the first time since 1948 that gymnasts from the former Soviet Union do not win the team gold, excluding the 1984 boycott Olympics. Russia winds up with the silver medal, Romania the bronze.

"In my 35 years of coaching I have never seen such a moment," Karolyi would later say to the world press. "People think these girls are fragile dolls. They're not. They're courageous."

Strug's second vault, it turns out, was not even necessary. The U.S. lead was big enough to cover Strug's first fall. The Americans wind up winning by .821 of a point.

The paramedics prepare to take Strug to the hospital for X-Rays. But she says no, that she wants to be with her teammates when they accept their gold medals on the podium.

"Don't worry," Kayolyi tells her. "You're going to the podium. I guarantee it.''

Karolyi then scoops her up. Cradled in her coaches arm, Strug bows her heads and cries as she emerges in front of the crowd. Karolyi sets her down on a mat below the podium, surrounded by her teammates. Two teammates lift her to the podium to stand with them to accept their gold medals.