Her voice is changing, lowering along with her expectations of
outrageous fame and fortune. "It is?" Kerri Strug asks,
Really. It has been a year since she vaulted into prominence by
sticking her landing on an injured ankle at the Olympics. The
high-pitched drama in Atlanta has receded along with the pain in
her famous left foot. She speaks with a deeper appreciation of
what she accomplished and what she's trying to accomplish. "I
have to learn to grow up," she says.
The pursuit of athletic excellence can be stunting, physically
and socially. Strug will turn 20 in November and is about to
enter her second year at UCLA. Like so many child athletes, who
are both older and younger than their years, she is straddling
two worlds, a woman-child in the promised land of celebrity,
trying to stick a landing in adulthood.
She could teach a course in irony. The little girl who never had
time to go to birthday parties helped Bill Clinton celebrate his
50th. The great grandchild of Jewish immigrants who never had
time for religion went to Israel to help light the torch at the
1997 Maccabiah Games. The millionaire who has multiple agents
listens to the sound tracks of Aladdin and The Lion King in her
BMW. The athlete who lived a life of prescribed routine and
routines (floor, beam, bars) grapples with the freedom to
establish her own daily routine.
August 10, 1997
"All I know is how to train and go to school," she says. "I'm
here [at college] with kids who are way ahead of me. It's like
my mom says, I'm really comfortable around businessmen, but
around guys my age I'm more edgy. I had never been to wild
parties. I've never been on a date. I'm so innocent."
Which doesn't stop TV interviewers who come to commemorate the
anniversary of the Vault from asking, "Have you met any guys?"
Strug smiles gamely and replies that there's plenty of time.
"You can catch up in that area fast," she says.
There's a huge difference between a little girl and a small
woman. At her off-campus apartment the phone rings. It is her
insurance agent calling with a few impertinent questions. Strug
answers them all, resolutely polite. "I haven't started going
through puberty yet," she tells the caller. "Because of
gymnastics you go through it later." Low body fat combined with
intense training and diet control can cause amenorrhea, the
suppression of menstruation. It happened to Strug's hero, Mary
Lou Retton, as well as Strug's Olympic teammate Shannon Miller.
Delayed puberty is the cause of Strug's chirpy Betty Boop voice,
which she cheerfully lampooned in an appearance on Saturday
Night Live last fall.
"I went to see a doctor about my voice," she says. "He said it
will get lower for sure. He said more estrogen or whatever would
make a significant difference." She hopes so. She wants to go
into broadcasting. She works as an intern on the sports staff at
KNBC-TV in L.A., trying, she says without irony, "to get a foot
in the door."
In the scene we all remember from the '96 Olympics, Strug was
cradled in the arms of her coach, Bela Karolyi, being held up as
the embodiment of athletic heroism. Since then she's been held
aloft by Barry Switzer, Shaquille O'Neal and a couple of ESPN
anchormen, not to mention several fuzzy college team mascots.
She's eaten pizza without removing the cheese, pledged a
sorority, maintained a 3.75 GPA, learned to walk in high heels
and earned $1.3 million. "I'm like, all this from one vault,"
she says. Her face is fuller and softer, her freckles more
prominent. She stands 4'9 1/2" and weighs 93 pounds, maybe a
quarter of an inch taller and four pounds heavier than a year
ago. Intensive training during puberty can delay growth, but
Strug comes by her size naturally. Her mother, Melanie, is
4'11"; her father, Burt, a heart surgeon, is 5'4 1/2". "I just
want to get to five feet," Kerri says.
Stature is only one measure of maturity. This has been a year
for Strug not only to grow up but also to catch up on popular
culture, of which she is both an exemplar and a beneficiary. She
doesn't know much about rock music. (In the gym she listened to
what Karolyi liked: country.) In school this summer she is
taking classes in jazz history and sharing an apartment with
three roommates and three stuffed bears. The rest of her vast
collection of teddy bears is home in Tucson, symbols of the
childhood she is trying to leave behind.
When flustered by the mundane hassle of campus parking, she
grumbles, "See, these are the little things I didn't have to
deal with." Little things like eating dorm food and doing her
own laundry are among the reasons her parents insisted that she
honor her commitment to attend UCLA after the Olympics. This
prevented her from joining her Atlanta teammates on the USA
Gymnastics-sanctioned John Hancock tour, whose promoters, she
says, were unwilling to allow her to participate only on
weekends. As Strug tells it, "My parents said, 'We love you and
we're glad about everything, but you're still our kid. You need
to go to college when it's appropriate.'"
She has found the time to write a children's book, Heart of Gold
(part of the proceeds went to the Special Olympics), and an
autobiography, Landing on My Feet, which is due out this fall
(she got a $175,000 advance for that one). She has endorsed
Danskins and Ace bandages. She also signed deals with the Ice
Capades and with Magic Concert Promotions, the promoters of the
magician David Copperfield, who were trying to put together a
gymnastics show. The latter deal caused some tension between
Strug and her former teammates.
She toured on weekends with former Olympians Bart Conner, Nadia
Comaneci and Jair Lynch, the only U.S. male gymnast to win a
medal in Atlanta. Strug's contract with the Magic tour started
out paying her about $24,000 per appearance, in which she did an
uneven parallel bars routine that ended with her flying into the
arms of several bare-chested men. The women with whom she won
the team gold medal--the Magnificent Seven, now minus
one--toured 34 cities, and each received about $6,000 per
The athlete who took one for the team quickly became the one
who broke up the team. "I think that really hurt the way people
perceive me," Strug says. "I knew in the long run I made the
right decision. It was hard to be the only one not in the group."
The morning after they won the gold medal the U.S. women's
gymnastics team went on the Today show, and later they appeared
on the Wheaties box. But schisms in the group soon appeared.
Strug had become the personification of a cherished American
ideal, playing hurt. Her teammates had become afterthoughts.
Strug says she wrote letters to everybody in the fall, just to
say hello, and "they didn't write back. I was hurt."
Miller, one of her friends on the team, says, "The only thing
that upset us was having the team overlooked. Without any one of
us, it wouldn't have happened."
"There were things we could have gotten as a team," says Jaycie
Phelps, another team member. "Since we weren't together, we
couldn't get them. I would have handled it differently. College
will always be there. Gymnastics won't."
By last December the Magic tour was out of business, a victim of
the country's satiable appetite for gymnastics. Strug filed suit
in March for the remaining $850,000 on her $1.13 million
contract. Magic Concert Promotions countersued, saying she had
failed to disclose the full extent of her injury and was unable
to perform properly. Although the litigation is still pending,
she was released from the contract in May, paving the way for
the Magnificent Seven to reunite this fall. They will not
perform the vault.
Fame, sudden, mercurial and unexpected, creates its own
dilemmas. The pressure to cash in is immeasurable. For Strug,
physical therapy took a backseat to making appearances. So her
ankle injury, far worse than anyone had realized, took longer to
heal. Strug now carries herself stiffly and walks with a trace
of a limp. Performing, she avoids high-impact landings.
After the Games she hired a high-profile agent, Leigh Steinberg,
whose mission was to resist what he calls "the downward curve of
the Olympics--a few bright moments followed by obscurity."
Steinberg, who helped negotiate Strug's early deals but now
serves only as an adviser, says, "We didn't think this was going
to be Dorothy Hamill or Mary Lou Retton. There was no buildup.
It began with one serendipitous and tragic moment." Strug has
appeared on Touched by an Angel, Beverly Hills 90210, America's
Funniest Home Videos and The Rosie O'Donnell Show, all in an
attempt, Steinberg says, "to keep her in the bike lane."
Rosie's producers were aghast at the white outfit she said she
intended to wear on The Tonight Show, and they dressed Strug in
DKNY, which was cool because it gave her something to wear to
Clinton's birthday bash, where she was seated next to the First
Teenager. Strug says, "Chelsea told me, 'You've got to be humble
and be yourself. If you don't know what to do, smile and wave.'
I've used that a couple of times."
Before the Olympics, Strug was overshadowed and, by her own
admission, often overwhelmed. "I was always second fiddle," she
says. "If they took two girls to the finals, I was third. If
they took three, I was fourth."
At the 1992 Olympics, in Barcelona, she had missed the
all-around finals by .014 of a point, finishing fourth on the
U.S. team. After the Games, Karolyi retired, and over the next
three years Strug was a gymnastics vagabond, hopping from coach
to coach, reeling from injury to injury. "They were the worst
years of my life," she says. She tore a stomach muscle while
training in Oklahoma in the winter of 1993. The following summer
she fell from the uneven parallel bars and severely sprained her
lower back. "That really scared my dad," she says. "An arm, a
leg, it heals. But a back is different. After a few days he
cooled off and saw it would be O.K." Karolyi unretired in
October '94, and Strug returned to his gym at the end of 1995.
In Atlanta, Strug was the last U.S. gymnast on the last
apparatus on the last day of the team competition. She remembers
nothing of what transpired in the air on her first vault, only
the ominous sound and pain of her too-short landing. Her left
ankle gave way. "There was such momentum," she says, "the bone
was shoved forward and then back in place," tearing the medial
and lateral ligaments. Team doctors believe most of the damage
occurred on that first vault, though they can't say for sure.
She could not bring herself to watch the videotape until
Christmas; even now it gives her the chills. She unconsciously
flexes the ankle while the tape rolls.
Asking an elite athlete to step back and consider the wisdom of
what she is about to do is a little like leading a thoroughbred
to the gate and saying, "Don't run." As Phelps says, "When
you're in the moment, you're in the moment." And a moment is all
Strug had. The judges took a minute to score her first vault.
Then she had 30 seconds to decide what to do. With Karolyi
yelling, "You can do it! Shake it out!" and 32,000 others just
plain yelling, she hopped up and down, trying to feel her foot.
She remembered just missing the all-around finals in Barcelona
and thought, I'm not going to almost make it again.
She had worked with a sports psychologist, visualizing herself
seizing the moment instead of seizing up in it. The green light
flashed go, and she went.
"Everyone always said I was the baby," says Strug. "This was my
time, and I said, I'm going to prove it. People have the wrong
impression, that [gymnasts] are robots and don't think. I was
upset with people blaming Bela [for my decision to vault
again]." And she is upset over a perceived double standard for
male and female athletes. "If it's a boy, it's fine, he's
tough," she says. "When it's a [female] gymnast, we're being
abused and ruining our bodies. It's the same thing--the athlete
wants it, and the coach helps you get through it."
She doesn't remember asking Karolyi the child's question, Do I
have to do this? She remembers, instead, asking the competitor's
question, Do we need this?
Producers in the TV trucks, parents in the stands, officials at
the scorer's table all knew the answer: no. Only the coaches and
the athletes didn't know. "In the excitement of the moment, I
think they forgot how to add," says Jackie Fie, an international
gymnastics official who was at the table. "I was wondering why
she went again. I thought, Gosh, that's brave when she really
doesn't have to do it."
She held the landing for the judges and then collapsed on the
mat on all fours. "It felt like a bomb went off," she says.
Strug had no idea of the impact of what she'd done. In the
tumult and tears she refused to let doctors cut off her vaulting
shoes. They were lucky shoes, and she thought she would need
them for the all-around competition.
The Olympic music announcing the medal ceremony began to play.
Her teammates were waiting for her; her parents, who hadn't seen
her in a month, wanted her to go straight to the hospital. She
said, "No, I want my medal." She declined a wheelchair,
protesting, "I can walk. I'm fine." She couldn't. Karolyi
gathered her up in his arms and carried her to the podium, where
her teammates would support her while she stood on one leg for
The Star-Spangled Banner. To some, the image of the diminutive
gymnast in Big Daddy's arms undercut the symbolic importance of
a female athlete sucking it up. The criticism of Karolyi irks
her. She says he deserved to be there on the podium.
Two days later she hoped to compete in the all-arounds, through
Sunday, but she couldn't perform a back handspring, something
she'd been able to do in the fifth grade.
"Basically she is a timid person," says Karolyi, who still
refers to Strug as a little girl. "She turned totally against
her nature" in Atlanta. In so doing, Karolyi believes, she
changed the way gymnasts are perceived. "Always they are nice,
they can smile, but when things get tough they run away and
cry," he says. "This bothers me. They are all tigers--Mary Lou
and Nadia. Kerri was the last probability to show the world the
heart of the tiger, but she was the one."
Now little girls on gym mats all over the U.S. crowd around to
touch Strug's autographed picture. Through the Children's
Miracle Network, a nonprofit organization that runs programs to
benefit hospitalized children, she meets kids whose goals are
literally to stand on their own two feet. "I was so involved
with myself and gymnastics," she says. "I'd have a bad day and
think it was the end of the world. I meet these children, who
are so optimistic, and their lives could go anytime. It's nice
to know that just by smiling you can make a child happy."
After so many improbable airborne maneuvers, so many twists and
turns of fate, Strug is amazed that the degree of difficulty in
achieving happiness is so small. "It's so easy," she says.
A smile never hurts.