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Subject: Whatever happened to ... Kerri Strug


Author:
Kathy
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Date Posted: Mon July 24, 2006 1:25am CST

If you see Kerri Strug in the reopened National Portrait Gallery, it'll be as a visitor, not up on the wall. Yet Strug, who works nearby with the U.S. Department of Justice, holds a place in the mind's eye of the American public.

"People will always remember the girl that landed on one leg," said Dominique Moceanu, Strug's teammate on the Magnificent 7.

Ten years ago this weekend, Strug's vault on an injured ankle to clinch the team gymnastics gold medal is an iconic image of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

"It was really a courageous performance in a crucial moment," said coach Bela Karolyi, whose "You can do it!" pep talk became a pop culture catchphrase and was spoofed on "Saturday Night Live."

And when Karolyi carried Strug in his arms to the victory podium to receive the historic first U.S. women's team gold medal with her teammates, who could forget that?

"For me, the vault represents so much more," said Strug, now 28. "Being able to focus when it counted most is an empowering experience. It's not something somebody can tell you how to do. Once you experience that, you're kind of a different person."

Before the Atlanta Games, Strug "wasn't that outgoing," Karolyi said, "not one to elbow in front of other people."

"I was a pretty shy, timid gal," Strug admitted. "I had big hopes for myself, but I think it was best that not much was expected. They knew I was consistent. They knew I'd do a good job. But I wasn't the tiger, as Bela would say. I was more the cat that always was there and comes back."

And lands on her feet.

Today Strug is confident, chatty and passionate about her work. She is a special adviser to the administrator for the U.S. Department of Justice in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

On the job for 16 months, Strug travels the country speaking to groups about her Olympic experience and works with prevention and intervention-type programs to keep young people out of trouble.

Because Strug is a presidential appointee, the job will end with the Bush administration.

"To be involved in politics nowadays, that takes courage," Karolyi said.

This is Strug's third job in the nation's capital. After a year teaching second grade to mostly Asian youngsters in San Jose, Calif., Strug, who earned undergraduate and master's degrees from Stanford, got a job at the White House in the office of Presidential Student Correspondence. She went to the Treasury Department's general counsel's office, then joined Justice.

"We are very proud of her, not just for that moment [the vault], but for the fact that she's not still living in it," said her father, Dr. Burt Strug.

"I don't think I can just live on that vault forever," Kerri said. "Clearly I love going out and talking about it. It was the highlight of my life; it's great to share that with everyone. I'm proud of it, but I have to grow, too, as a person."

And that doesn't just mean sprouting a half inch to now stand 4 feet 10.

"I will never make the 5s, maybe with shoes," said Strug, who wrinkles her nose when she laughs. Her hair is longer and blonder than it was in 1996, and she's a size-2 petite instead of a size-0 petite.

"Now that I'm a normal person who eats what I want," she said, "if I miss a day of exercise, I miss a day."

Strug and her boyfriend go to the theater, and she belongs to the Junior League. She visits Marietta, Georgia every eight weeks or so to see her sister and 2-year-old niece and 1-year-old nephew.

The Tucson, Ariz., native, who left home at 13 to train with Karolyi in Houston, hasn't done competitive gymnastics this century.

Can Strug still do a split? She shrugs her shoulders.

"I think I'm still more flexible than the average person," she said, "but I'm definitely not like I used to be."

She runs to keep fit. When she was recognized in her four marathons, "People say, 'Come on, you can do it,' trying to be cute," she said. "I just smile."

As the youngest member of the 1992 Olympic team at age 14, Strug barely missed making the all-around final in Barcelona. She had an inconvenient habit of not performing as well in competition as she did in practice.

"I would crack here or there," Strug said. "So finally when all eyes were on me in Atlanta in the most important moment of my gymnastics career, I was able to handle the pressure."

But first, Strug had the shock of falling on her first vault, a Yurchenko 1 twist that she hadn't missed in months. Strug felt her left foot jam and heard a pop. She limped back down the runway. The Russians held a slim lead with two competitors left in floor exercise, so Strug decided to go again.

She thundered down the runway, vaulted, landed in excruciating pain and then hopped on her right foot. After saluting the judges, Strug collapsed to her knees.

"It was something totally unexpected for a little girl 80 pounds to show that kind of fortitude you would expect from most NFL football players," Burt Strug said. But he added, "It took us a day or two to realize it was sort of a special moment."

It turned out that the Americans would have won without Strug's score, but Moceanu said, "Whether we needed it or not, it was still a great moment in the history of the sport. It was heroic."

Strug has seen the video of her vault "a couple of million times" so she has to concentrate to remember what it really felt like, not just what the tape shows.

"I just remember making the vault and it killing," Strug said. "It's like when you hit your funny bone multiply that by 100, 1,000, that pain."

Melanie Strug isn't convinced her daughter should have vaulted again, but she said, "Knowing Kerri, she probably felt she had to do that vault. That was her job. She said a million times, 'I wouldn't want people to remember my last Olympic experience as landing on my rear end.'?"

The vault aggravated her injury and Strug, however, was forced to withdraw from the all-around competition, vault and floor exercise, an event in which she had the highest qualifying score.

"I guess I achieved my dream in a very different manner than I had envisioned since I was 6 years old and idolized [1984 gold medalist] Mary Lou Retton," Strug said. "But it's even that much better in the long run because I think there are a lot of Olympic gold medalists, but unless there's a certain story, it's come and go."

When people stare at Strug on the Metro and ask, "Are you who I think you are?" she might reply, "I'm the gymnast," or "I'm the gymnast who hurt her ankle."

Some people will just ask if they went to high school together. They know they know her from somewhere.

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Replies:
Subject Author Date
Thanks for posting this. She's adorable. So was Chris Kattan on SNL as her "brother Kippy." (NT)Missy-JoSat August 05, 2006 5:57am CST


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