Twenty years ago, Kerri Strug vaulted into American lore, sticking a landing on a sprained ankle and giving the U.S. women’s gymnastics team a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
“I was just 18 at the time, so it’s been longer now than I was old in the ’96 Games,” Strug said in studio on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney, putting the passage of time in perspective. “And I think with the Olympics, people tend to just freeze you in time.”
Strug, 38, has accomplished a great deal in the last 20 years. She graduated from Stanford, got married and had two kids.
Still, she knows she’ll always be known for what she did on a vault 20 years ago in Atlanta.
“I think most people identify me with that Olympic moment,” she said. “It was clearly one of the highlights of my life. It’s something I’m very proud of. I think it speaks a lot of who I am that when I fell down, I literally and figuratively got back up, that I put my teammates in front of myself. Those are qualities that are really important and that I’m proud of, but that was at 18. I had a lot more life to live. Now my focus are my children. The bond that I have with them is magical. That’s really where my priorities lie. Definitely they’re the highlight of my life now.”
Strug, a Tucson, Arizona, native, didn’t have a normal childhood by conventional standards, but for her, it did seem normal.
“I had a passion,” she said. “I loved the sport of gymnastics and I wanted to do whatever it took to be the best. So 8, 9, it was pretty normal. I went to gymnastics every day after school. But around age 11, 12 – and particularly a month before my 13th birthday – it changed drastically because I moved away from my parents to train with Bela and Marta Karolyi in Houston, Texas. That was a huge sacrifice. I’m extremely close to my family and don’t think I could have done it without their love and support. I’m lucky that I’m the baby of the family, so my siblings were in college and my mom could come visit me frequently and that definitely assisted with my training process.
“But with gymnastics, the window of opportunity is so short,” Strug continued. “I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘If I had only tried a little harder or if I had only trained with this coach, maybe my Olympic dream would have been fulfilled.’ I wanted to make sure that there was no second-guessing, no doubts, and obviously it all worked out for me. Clearly there’s plenty of athletes that make that commitment and train just as long and hard and don’t get Olympic gold, but hopefully they have those character traits that they learn through their athletic career that make them a better person and advance them in their academics and whatever career they pursue. Those are qualities you can’t be taught unless you live through them and you grow as a person.
“Of course as a child I didn’t realize that. I just wanted to go to the Olympics. But now that I’m a mother, I look at things very differently and I’m so thankful for all that I learned through my athletic career.”
Strug is revered for compartmentalizing the pain she felt and performing well in the face of adversity. For her, though, she just did what she had to do.
“As any athlete knows, pain is part of the game,” she said. “Something is always hurting. When you’re training at the highest level day in and day out, it’s just inevitable that things are going to hurt.”
True, Brandon Tierney said, but there’s a difference between pain and injury. Strug was injured.
“Yes, that was a different situation than usual,” she said. “But I think those times of having to perform the vault when I was tired or when something was hurting enabled me to, in that dire situation, say, ‘Okay, I’m injured, but I got to do this.’ So you just kind of go on automatic pilot. And for all those times that I really disliked my coach, Bela Karolyi, for pushing me past that point I thought I could go, believe me, now I’m so thankful and I have a totally different perspective.”