GYMNASTICS: With one inspiring vault, the U.S. women's team won a gold medal--and an honored place in Olympic history.
BEFORE THE BOMB, BEFORE THE BOWED HEADS AND THE silent moments, before the Olympic flag billowing at half-mast, there were Bela and Kerri. Many Olympics struggle to find one iconic moment. The Games of Atlanta now have two. The blood is indelible, of course, but so, too, was the stunning scene last week when a 4-foot-8-inch, 18-year-old woman charged down a runway, vaulted through the air and landed on a leg so badly sprained that it could hold her upright for only a second. Just long enough to ensure the first gold medal ever won by a U.S. women's gymnastics team. A few minutes later, while a crowd of 32,000 screamed and pounded each other on the back, six small, red-white-and-blue Olympians marched out for their medals, trailed only by their wounded teammate who was carried in the arms of a coach who never met a camera he didn't like.
There was much debate about this later, but it was the men in the Georgia Dome who were the first to start weeping. The women stood and cheered.
For those in the building, it was an athletic feat inscribed for the ages, one that would stand with Willis Reed limping out onto the court of an NBA title game; with Shun Fujimoto, the great Japanese gymnast who took his turn on the rings at the 1976 Games, knowing he would have to dismount squarely onto his broken right leg. For those at home, it was reason to switch on NBC a few hours later, spiking the ratings to an Olympic peak that has become a national plateau.
It was a great moment, and one that may have been totally unnecessary. Although it's still unclear if anyone realized it in the heat of the competition, even without Strug's gallant vault, the U.S. women had accumulated enough points to squeak past the second-place Russians. It had been a closely fought match all afternoon, with the Americans surging ahead on the uneven bars, then maintaining their lead along the perilous balance beam and through their spectacular floor routines. All they needed were solid performances on the vault and they would win. The first four women--Jaycie Phelps, Amy Chow, Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes--flipped safely. Then Dominique Moceanu tried twice and landed both times on her butt. Strug was last. On her first try she sprawled on the mat, scoring a wretched 9.162.
The rabid, pro-U.S.A. crowd quieted down. Few in the cavernous Georgia Dome noticed that Strug, who had rolled over on her ankle and "felt a snap," had stood up staring at her leg in dismay. "Shake it off," urged her teammates as she hobbled back down the runway. "I don't think they understood there was something wrong," she said afterward. "I felt the gold medal was slipping away." When her personal coach and living legend Bela Karolyi leaned over the boards to bellow instructions, Kerri cried out that she was in pain. Then she asked him, "Do I have to do the second vault?" Bela, uncertain that the United States was safely ahead, shrugged. "I encouraged her," he said later, "but she was the one who had to answer that."
Strug went back out onto the runway. She whispered a little prayer, asking "God to help me out somehow." And then she vaulted into history. "She pretty much sacrificed herself," said Mary Lou Retton, another one of Bela's girls, who hugged her old coach while Strug was helped out to a waiting stretcher. Medics wanted to rush her to the hospital. Karolyi wouldn't hear of it. "Not even the New York City police can stop me taking you up," he said as he swept her up in his arms and carried her to the medal podium. "It hurts," she told him. "Kerri," he said. "You're an Olympic champion now. Enjoy it!"
Was it raw courage or just another form of sport-sanctioned abuse? Since the Barcelona Games, gymnastics has been heavily criticized as an unhealthy activity for young girls. And Karolyi, a Romanian emigre who combines a bigger-than-life personal style with a win-at-all-costs approach, has been the sport's No. 1 whipping boy. Even his peers whisper about his hard methods and relentless training regimen. After the Olympic trials, which Moceanu missed with her leg injury, one rival remarked, "Don't worry, Bela will have her ready for the Games. I don't want to know how, but she will be ready."
Last week a new study in The New England Journal of Medicine attacked the custodians of the sport. It cited long-term damage to the female gymnasts, including injuries from overtraining, eating disorders, delayed puberty, osteoporosis and even social isolation. The U.S. Gymnastics Federation has acknowledged a problematic history. But coaches say now they are inundated with materials on safety, health and nutritional issues from the national federation. And perhaps wonder why high-school football doesn't get the same attention from the critics that gymnastics does.
One answer: sexism. Sports-crazy America has always idolized and idealized young men who "play hurt," "give it their all" or "take one for the team." Yet critics blanch when female athletes choose, or are even driven, to do the same. Strug is one year older than NBA-bound Kobe Bryant, who will be applauded next season when he drives down the lane and survives a Charles Barkley elbow to the head. And what would Strug's Olympic legacy be if she had limped off in tears? "I'm 18 years old," Strug explained. "I can take my chances."
And make her choices. Strug, a straight-A student whose father is a heart surgeon in Tucson, Ariz., has been a peripatetic figure in gymnastics, bouncing from coach to coach. She appeared to find a home in the Colorado Springs gym of Tom and Lori Forster, reputed to be one of the most low-key and athlete-friendly programs in the nation. With the Forsters, Strug finished an impressive seventh at the 1995 world championships in Japan. But at the same meet, Kerri walked off the floor, confused and panicked, just before she was scheduled to compete in the vault finals. Soon after, Strug returned to Karolyi's gym, knowing that she'd take second place to Moceanu the prodigy. It was worth it, she told a friend, because "Bela knows how to win."
But Bela wasn't sure he would ever be able to teach it to Kerri. Behind her back, many in the gymnastics world nicknamed her "Scary Kerri" for her inconsistent performances. At the national championships this spring, Strug stunned the crowd by missing the balance beam entirely on her flying mount. She also had a reputation for surrendering to minor injuries. "The littlest hurt and she'd make the biggest production of it," says one coach. Bela, too, says she was never "one of my roughest and toughest kids."
Not that Karolyi didn't see the promise. Strug has great speed and power. It was her temperament that was the problem. She always had trouble sleeping and was tense and high-strung. "Always we were just trying to get her to slow down," says Geza Pozsar, the great gymnastics choreographer who had defected from Romania along with Bela and Martha Karolyi back in 1981. Pozsar, who worked with Strug since 1990, recalls how "her head would be flying all around, she'd be looking everywhere and we would be saying, "Kerri, just focus!' "
The women's team had been forged during a week of training camp in North Carolina and another week in a suburban manse outside Atlanta. This year's team had its own nickname, "The Magnificent Seven," though not one of the youngsters had a clue that it had already been used. They were the epitome of the thoroughly modern team with their mag 7 logo licensed and already plastered on merchandise. The two team coaches, Martha Karolyi and Mary Lee Tracy, as well as five other personal coaches for the girls, hammered on the concept of "team first." "We all sat in that room together trying to do what was best for the U.S.A.," said Tracy. When the lineups were revealed for the first day of the two-day competition, the compulsories, nobody was more surprised than Strug to find herself in a pressure-packed role. Not only would she lead off the competition on the uneven bars, her worst event, but she would also go first on the treacherous balance beam before anchoring the team on floor exercise and vault. "I know they're trying to take advantage of my [Barcelona] experience," she said, "but I don't think anyone likes to have that much pressure on them."
She worried for naught. Strug and the team performed well; after the first day, they trailed only the Russians. On the second day the U.S. team was dazzling; no American scored lower than 9.6 until the vaults. By the third rotation of the evening, the Russian girls were either in tears or staring dispiritedly across at the Americans prancing on floor exercise. Though six girls compete in each event, only the top five scores count. On floor exercise, the U.S. team was so dazzling that it was Miller, a two-time world champion on the floor, whose mark was discarded.
Then came the vault, the gold medal and the hospital in rapid succession. The emotions of that evening appeared to sap the team. Two days later Ukraine's Lilia Podkopayeva won the prized individual all-around gold. Miller, who had the second highest individual score in the team event, faded to eighth place. Dawes, who was leading going into the floor exercises, stumbled off the mat, scored only a 9.0 and was finished for the night.
But nothing could diminish the team victory. Now comes the whirlwind: the trip to the White House, the big-money offers to do anything and everything. Gymnastics sponsor John Hancock has already arranged a 30-city tour. Even Strug, who has always refused any money so she could compete for UCLA beginning this fall, is tempted to take the cash and jump. Whatever her decision, and however the commercial possibilities play out, her place in Olympic history is secure. It will live as long as imaginations can replay the tape of one gallant leap for glory.
Team gymnastics is a beautiful, complicated sport. There are seven members on each team; six compete in each event; only the top five scores count. After the first round last week, the U.S. women's team trailed only the Russians. In the final session, a different team member excelled in each event. The gold-medal maneuvers--and some gymnastic jargon:
19-year-old Dominique Dawes scored highest on the team's first rotation. Her routine included the "Hindorff," in which she soared around and above the 8-foot-high bar.
Dawes started with a handstand, then swung under the bar in a circle.
Upon release, she changed directions in midair with a "reverse Hecht."
Her awesome height above the bar helped earn her a 9.850. ..CN.-FIRST ROTATION U.S. 242.742 Russia -.472 Romania -.829
The team's best score on this apparatus was by 19-year-old Shannon Miller. On the narrow beam--it's only 4 inches wide and 16 feet long-her performance was nearly flawless.
The crucial dismount was a "double back salto tucked with a full twist." Miller executed the saltos (somersaults) perfectly.
A small hop on the landing cost her a tenth of a point. But her score was 9.862. ..CN.-SECOND ROTATION U.S. 291.641 Russia -.497 Romania -.705
To the rhythms of the Charlie Daniels Band, 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu wowed judges with her youthful grace and technical skill. Her first tumbling pass was her most impressive.
The maneuver was a "double salto backward piked with a full twist."
She began with a roundoff and "flic-flac," a leap backward to the hands and back to the feet.
Moceanu's double salto was flawless. The landing, in a lunge position with one leg forward, was clean. Her score was 9.837. ..CN.-THIRD ROTATION U.S. 340.677 Russia -.897 Romania -1.055
Competitors sprint to a springboard and leap onto a four-foot-high horse. On her first attempt, 19-year-old Kerri Strug injured her left ankle. Thinking the gold was at stake, she tried again.
The "Yurchenko" is a "roundoff flic-flac into a backward 1 1/2 salto with a 1 1/2 turn."
Strug soared above the horse with clean, tight turns.
Courageously, she landed on both feet, then lifted her left leg and collapsed in pain. Her score: 9.837. ..CN.-FINAL SCORES U.S. 389.225 Russia 388.404 Romania 388.246