Kerri Strug: The gymnast who battled through pain for a taste of Olympic glory

Kerri Strug of the USA in action on the balance beam during the women''s gymnastics competition during the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games (Doug Pensinger/Staff)
Kerri Strug of the USA in action on the balance beam during the women''s gymnastics competition during the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games (Doug Pensinger/Staff)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: Kerri Strug overcomes injury and pain to land gold in Atlanta.

The background

Kerri Strug's first taste of the Olympics came at Barcelona 1992. At 14 years of age, she was the youngest Olympian on the USA team, having qualified just a month before the Games.

At the Olympic trials, Strug fell during the floor exercise routine, but even though she had convinced herself that she had ruined her chances of qualifying, the Arizona-born gymnast was named the fourth member of the six-person team.

The young Strug, who at 1.4m cut a diminutive figure even among her fellow gymnasts, enjoyed a Barcelona Olympics that was at once a success and a disappointment. Even though she did claim a team bronze medal, she missed out on a place in the all-around, as Kim Zmeskal took the final spot.

It was a bitter pill to swallow.

But four years later the memories of Barcelona would prove vital to Strug as she faced the greatest challenge of her lifetime.

The finals

"For me, there were more expectations because we didn’t win the first time around" - Strug talking to NBC in 2016.

In 1996, Strug qualified for the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 as part of a stellar line-up known fondly as the Magnificent Seven. But even though this was a home Olympics and the USA were in a rich vein of form, their gymnasts had never won the team competition. The strong favourites were once again the Soviet team, who had claimed the gold medal on nine separate occasions.

But while history was against them, Team USA managed to put themselves in a commanding position as the competition neared its conclusion on 23 July 1996.

In the final rotation, the USA was leading by a dominant 0.897 points with only one competition left for them to participate in: the vault.

It would take a collapse of epic proportions for the Americans to not win their first ever team gold medal.

Perhaps it was the pressure, perhaps it was nerves, but with four athletes already having vaulted, the USA team were yet to land cleanly. But when 14-year-old Demonique Moceanu stepped up things went from bad to worse. On both of her vault attempts, the young gymnast fell.

It meant everything rode on Strug's shoulders. Her two vaults would mean the difference between gold and silver for Team USA.

With her first vault, disaster struck. She landed awkwardly on her feet and her ankle gave way underneath her. Pain was etched on Strug's face, the crowd stared on in shock, and it looked for all the world as if her competition was over.

"Do we need this?" she asked desperately as she faced up to the idea that she would have to perform her final vault with an injured ankle. The answer was yes.

Clearly hurting, Strug limped up for the gold medal-defining vault. As she catapulted herself through the air, all eyes were on the landing. When her feet hit the ground, her ankle seemed to waver as the impact of the jump shook through her body.

She raised her arms in triumph as she winced in pain.

Strug had done it. She stuck the landing and won team gold for the USA for the first time ever.

Kerri Strug of the United States grabs hers ankle after injuring herself on her first attempt while competing in the vault during the Women's Team Gymnastics competition at the 1996 Olympic Games (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)
Kerri Strug of the United States grabs hers ankle after injuring herself on her first attempt while competing in the vault during the Women's Team Gymnastics competition at the 1996 Olympic Games (Photo by Mike Powell/Getty Images)
1996 Getty Images

The outcome

If one moment can change your life, this was it.

Strug left the Olympic Games a hero, becoming a regular on TV chat shows and even going on to visit the president of the United States.

But as far as gymnastics were concerned, things were much more complicated. Strug struggled to retain the form that had seen her win gold in Atlanta and she soon retired from the sport.

Since then, the gymnast has enjoyed a varied career ranging from a role as a primary school teacher to her participation in Disney's World on Ice.

But her golden moment at the Atlanta 1996 Games will never be forgotten. Even now when Halloween comes around it is not uncommon to see a young American child dressed as Kerri Strug - the athlete who triumphed over pain to win a historic Olympic medal.