Scored down to the thousandths, gymnastics discovered an element it couldn’t quantify Tuesday night:
The breadth of Kerri Strug’s courage.
Fearing that a historic gold medal was slipping away, the 18-year-old cleanup hitter of the United States women’s gymnastics team landed a perilous vault despite a severely injured ankle - and then was carried to the victory stand by her coach in a moment that may forever define the 1996 Olympic Games.
It was the crowning achievement in gymnastics for the U.S. women, who won their first-ever gold in the team competition by a narrow margin over Russia - and a happy-tragic moment for Strug, whose dreams of gold in all-around and the individual events are now wrapped up in a splint.
“It was great that the USA got the gold,” said Strug, who returned to meet the press after being treated for a lateral sprain of the left ankle at Crawford Long Hospital. “I still can’t believe it. We’ve made history now and I’m ecstatic about that.
“At the same time, I’m upset about the physical aspect right now. It’s too early to say (whether I’ll continue to compete at the Games), but I’m going to do everything possible. You know, this is the Olympics and I trained so long and so hard for it.”
That sense of duty and devotion led her to a climactic sacrifice Tuesday night.
The United States, second in Sunday’s compulsories, edged ahead of the Russians with consistent excellence during the optional segment - including sparkling routines in uneven bars and floor exercise by Dominique Dawes and a riveting balance beam performance by 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu.
But with the gold medal all but assured, Moceanu - the next-to-last performer - twice landed on her rump in the vault, scoring just 9.200. Then Strug also skidded on the seat of her leotard on her first vault.
Her score - 9.182 - was less important than her condition.
“After the first vault, I heard a snap in my foot,” she said. “I was really scared because I hurt a lot. I couldn’t walk normal and I really didn’t know what to do. Everyone was saying, ‘C’mon, you can do it,’ but I really don’t think they realized I was hurt. I was thinking, ‘You don’t understand, there’s something wrong with me.”’
But she was also aware of Moceanu’s flubs, and thought a near-perfect score by Russia’s last performer in floor exercise, Rozalia Galiyeva, could put the gold in jeopardy.
“If I didn’t do this vault,” she said, “we weren’t going to win the gold.”
Her coach, Bela Karolyi - the man who developed Nadia Comeneci and Mary Lou Retton into a Olympic legends - didn’t use those exact words.
“I told her to give me all she had - one more good vault,” he said, “and she said, ‘I will, I will.”’
It was better than good. Performing the risky Yurchenko one-and-a-half twist, she scored 9.712 - though she could barely hold the landing because of a louder, more damaging snap in the same ankle. Examination revealed that two ligaments were torn.
And when it was over, she had but one request of Karolyi.
“She kept crying, ‘Please don’t make me go to the hospital, don’t make me go,”’ Karolyi recalled. “She had worked too hard and sacrificed too much to give up that moment (on the medal stand).”
Strug’s score made Galiyeva’s floor routine moot - and she stumbled to a 9.500. Had Strug not taken her second vault and the U.S. team been forced to count Moceanu’s 9.200 (teams count the top five scores of six gymnasts), Russia would have needed a 9.810 from Galiyeva to steal the gold medal.
“But at the time, there is no way to know,” said Karolyi. “Kerri performs first, and you don’t know what Galiyeva might be capable of.”
In the final count, the U.S. team totaled 389.225 - a mere .821 ahead of the Russians. Romania captured the bronze medal.
Strug’s injury and Moceanu’s falls weren’t the only adversity for the U.S. women.
Shannon Miller, the two-time world champion and owner of five Olympic medals, twice had scores knocked down by the head judge, who felt the other judges had scored her too high. It left her second to Ukraine’s Lilia Podkopayeva in the all-around totals going into individual competition.
“It’s very rare,” said a USA Gymnastics official. “It’s only happened three times this Olympics and two of those were to Shannon.”
Said Miller, “I’m disappointed in those scores, definitely, but it’s hard to think about anything else after winning the gold medal as a team. I can’t believe we’ve come so far and everyone had a part in it.”
After Karolyi carried Strug to the podium, it was Miller and Moceanu who helped her to the top. But the entire U.S. team - Dawes, Jaycie Phelps, Amanda Borden and Amy Chow - shared the joy.
“It’s going to be really hard to take this medal off tonight,” said Dawes. “I may even have to shower and sleep with it on.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ON TV 9 a.m.-noon: Swimming, rowing, cycling. 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m.: Men’s gymnastics, swimming, men’s basketball. 9:41 p.m.-11:11 p.m.: Women’s volleyball, boxing, cycling, weightlifting.