Friday, July 23, 2010

July 23, 1996: The second vault

ATLANTA - She knew exactly what she needed: A 9.493 on the vault. Do that, and Kerri Strug would clinch the team gold in gymnastics for the United States. She took off down the runway at full speed, leapt over the pommel, seemed to have it down - until she fell, sitting down on the landing. She got up, shell-shocked at her miss, and limping. She had sprained her ankle. Walking off the mat, preparing for her second vault, she stumbled. She was hurt bad.

Strug looked over to her coach. Do we need this? He answered, we need this. She nodded. Not much was on the line - just the the chance for the Americans to win their first team gold medal in gymnastics. Nothing major.

Strug went back to the start of the runway, took a deep breath, ignored the pain in her ankle, took off again. The same vault, the exact same routine that caused her to fall, caused her teammate to fall twice. This time she stuck it, no stumbling. Lifting her arms for the judges, lifting her damaged left leg to take away the pain, she smiled, finishing the vault. Then she collapsed.

The magnitude of what she had done started to sink in. As her coaches carried her off the mat, people fully realized how injured she really was. Putting two and two together, they started to figure out that she got hurt on the first vault, that she went out and did the second one anyway because her team needed her to step up. Jeopardizing her chance at an individual gold medal later in the games, Kerri Strug had just vaulted into American lore, completing perhaps the most famous example of performing under adversity in Olympic history.

The images from that day are ingrained in our memory. Strug biting her lip and lifting her injured leg at the end of the vault, appearing larger than life, like a true superhero. An injured Strug being carried to the medal stand by her coach, looking like a child in his huge arms. An image nobody will ever forget.

The little-known fact about that jump: because Russia's Roza Galieva had a poor score on the floor routine that rotation, the U.S. didn't actually need Strug's second, heroic vault to win the gold. They would have gotten it even after throwing out her score. But in the few moments between her first and second vaults, they didn't know that. So she had to do it.

Strug never competed again. The injury she suffered in the last vault kept her out of the individual competitions that she had qualified for at Atlanta, and after the Olympics, she retired to attend college. Perhaps it's just as well. It's hard to cap a career any better than she did.

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