All that changed on July 23 in a few breathtaking moments that will be featured in Olympic highlight films for years to come. With U.S. women gymnasts clinging to a precarious lead over Russia in the finals of the team competition, Strug, 18, going last in the vault, heard a snap in her left ankle when she landed. As 32,000 spectators gasped, she hobbled to the sidelines, then, clenching her teeth against the pain, charged down the runway for a second vault. With the ankle already swelling and her leg numb, she scored 9.712, landing almost perfectly while taking most of the weight on her right foot. For a moment she raised her arms in victory. Then she crumpled to the mat, her face twisted, her eyes brimming with tears.
"I knew if I didn't make it, we wouldn't win the gold," said Strug, daughter of a Tucson heart surgeon and a homemaker, who plans to continue in her sport at UCLA this fall. "So I said a quick prayer and asked God to help me out. I don't know how I did the vault, but I knew I had to do it."
As it turned out, the U.S. would have won anyway, but Strug couldn't have known that. Her injury, a third-degree lateral sprain, forced her to withdraw from the individual all-around competition later in the week, but she held out hope of recovering in time to try for a medal in an apparatus event. Regardless, it would be almost impossible to top her performance. "When she nailed that second vault, I had tears of overwhelming joy because it was such a courageous thing to do," says Retton. "It was one of the most heroic acts in the Olympics I've ever seen."
FOR YEARS, KERRI STRUG LABORED in the special kind of obscurity reserved for talented performers not seen as stars. She was the teammate, a reliable member of the supporting cast backing such media-endorsed Olympic headliners as Kim Zmeskal four years ago in Barcelona and, this year, tiny, 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu. "You'll never see Kerri on a Wheaties box," Bela Karolyi, coach of all three, told the Houston Chronicle last month. Adds 1984 gold medalist Mary Lou Retton, herself a Wheaties cover girl: "She has always been the bridesmaid, never the bride."