Saturday, July 23, 2011

True Grit

The United States has hosted only two Summer Olympic Games since World War II.

The Olympic Games often produce great moments for the host country, and the Summer Games in America were no exceptions to that rule. Both were noteworthy in several sports — but they were especially so for America's female gymnasts.

In 1984, the Games came to Los Angeles, where Mary Lou Retton became the first American gymnast to earn a perfect score in Olympic competition. The fact that the gymnasts from Russia and the Eastern European nations, who had dominated the sport for many years, were not there did not seem to dampen American spirits at all.

And, in fact, Retton's perfect score was a significant individual achievement — even though it is lampooned a bit in a recent Dairy Queen commercial.

But I'm inclined to think that what happened 15 years ago today in Atlanta was even more significant.

And I believe I would think that even if the United States had not won the team all–around competition for the first time.

On this day, the United States was on the brink of that achievement. Going into the final rotation, either the Russians or the Americans (also known as the "Magnificent Seven") could win. The Americans were on the vault and held the lead, but if they stumbled, the Russians were positioned to capture the gold.

And stumble certainly seemed to sum up what was happening to the Americans that evening.

Most of the other Americans landed their vaults but did not do so cleanly. One of Strug's teammates didn't even land one of her two attempts cleanly — and was awarded a poor score by Olympic standards.

Then it was Strug's turn — and the misfortune continued. She fell on her landing and was clearly in pain as she limped back to the start of the runway.

I've heard that Strug asked her coach, Bela Karolyi, if it was necessary for her to make a second attempt, and he told her that they needed her to do so — although, in fact, they really didn't. The Russians were competing in the floor exercise, and their last competitor turned in a poor performance.

It was so poor that, even with the scores that were awarded to Strug's teammate who failed to land both of her vaults and to Strug following her first attempt, the Americans would have won the competition.

But they couldn't have known that at the time because the final Russian gymnast had not started her floor exercise when Strug made her vaults.

So Strug, who had damaged her ankle on the first vault, persevered despite the pain.

It wasn't so obvious that she was hurt when she ran down the runway, but when she landed — practically on one foot although she did hold a two–footed landing just long enough to receive credit for it from the judges — it was clear to all who could see.

She collapsed on the mat as announcer John Tesh exclaimed, "Kerri Strug is hurt! She's hurt badly!"

But Strug had accomplished her goal. Her score mathematically secured the team gold medal.

However, her unselfishness cost her. Because of her injury, she was unable to compete in the individual all–around, for which she had qualified.

But, on this evening 15 years ago, a night that will always be remembered for the drama and true grit of one Olympian, that didn't matter.

There are several enduring images of that evening. One remembers, of course, the sight of Strug standing on one foot after her second vault, then taking a step or two and collapsing on the mat.

And then there was the sight of Karolyi carrying Strug, her left ankle wrapped in tape, to the podium to receive her medal with her teammates.

After the medals presentation, Strug was taken to a hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered a third–degree lateral sprain and tendon damage.

And, as I say, Strug was unable to compete in the individual all–around because of her injury — so she was replaced by Shannon Miller.

There is a certain irony to this. Miller, a five–time medalist in the 1992 Games, was considered the leader of the '96 team, and Dominique Moceanu, the girl who stumbled twice in the team vault, was regarded as one of the team's stars.

But Strug, who was probably seen more as a utility player before the Atlanta Games, is the one who is remembered. If she had not been hurt, she would have qualified over both Miller and Moceanu for the all–around competition because of their performances in the vault.

Miller is often said to be the United States' greatest gymnast, and that may well be true. She won more medals than anyone else, which is a convincing argument for the title of greatest individual gymnast.

But I'm not entirely sure that Miller was a team player.

Make no mistake about it. Miller did make her contribution to the team's all–around triumph. She was second in individual scoring when the team competition ended, but she struggled at times with a pulled hamstring and tendinitis in her left wrist when the individual competition got under way. She finished eighth.

Strug, on the other hand, was a team player who sacrificed her shot at individual Olympic glory and clinched Miller's final Olympic gold medal with her iconic vault.

Strug isn't in the news much anymore. She got married in 2010. For the most part, I think she has remained out of the public eye.

I don't know if Strug would have fared better than Miller if she had been able to compete in the individual all–around competition.

And, thanks to hindsight, I do know that it wasn't necessary for Strug to make that second vault.

But she demonstrated — in a way nothing else could — what the true Olympic spirit has always been about.

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