Before gymnasts Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Aly Raisman dominated the past two Olympic Games, establishing USA Gymnastics as the gold standard across the globe, there was the Magnificent Seven. It was a fearless group that embodied the heart of champion under pressure. Nobody displayed that more than Kerri Strug at the 1996 Olympics.
You see, back then, Team USA was not the juggernaut it is today. Russia and Romania were clearly the teams to beat. Then, the Magnificent Seven — comprised of Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Jayice Phelps and Strug — pulled off an incredible run to win the first team all-around gold medal for women’s gymnastics in United States history.
Before the Atlanta Olympics, the Americans only had one silver medal in the team all-around in 1984, and two bronze medals, including the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. There’s no doubt the team was getting better, but coach Bela Karolyi expected greatness and wasn’t going to stop pushing until Team USA got the job done.
These are only part of what made the first gold medal so special. The rest of it belonged to 18-year-old Kerri Strug, her injured ankle, and the determination to never give up during the team competition, which included the uneven bars, vault, floor exercise and balance beam.
The story from July 23, 1996 has been told millions of times, but it never gets old. That day, Strug, a Tucson, Arizona native, had the weight of the country on her shoulders.
Kerri Strug Injury
In the final event, the vault, and after 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu failed to secure the 9.430 needed to win twice, it was all up to Strug.
That’s a lot of pressure for a teenager, to pull off the historic upset on your home turf, but Strug was ready.
Unfortunately, Strug landed awkwardly and fell to the mat on her first vault. Even more unfortunate, she heard her ankle pop. As it turns out, she had badly torn two ligaments in her ankle. But one more vault was needed for that gold medal, and Bela Karolyi looked to Strug to make it happen, despite the injury.
So Strug somehow got set for a second vault, somehow how sprinted down the runway, somehow sprung off the board, and somehow stuck the landing to win the Olympic gold medal.
That was the moment when Kerri Strug became a national hero, and the scene of Karolyi carrying her off the medal podium is iconic.
For those thinking a national hero is a bit of a stretch, her life after she stuck the landing was a paradise for any celebrity. She got to visit President Bill Clinton, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a box of Wheaties, was the featured guest on talk shows, and was featured in commercials and even Saturday Night Live.
Anywhere you looked, there was American team gymnast Kerri Strug, the young woman who somehow pulled off the most important vault of her life on a bum ankle. And nobody will ever forget it.
Kerri Strug Now
Her life was never really the same after the 1996 Olympic Games, but, then again, how could it? Her career after gymnastics is fascinating, too.
Throughout her career, following her Master’s degree from Stanford University, she’s been an elementary school teacher, a staff assistant with the White House Office of Presidential Student Correspondence in Washington, D.C., worked at the General Counsel in the Treasury Department, and got a job with the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
She even wrote a book titled, “Landing On My Feet: A Diary of Dreams” about those incredible Summer Olympics.
Kerri Strug is known for so much in her life, but everyone will remember her as an Olympian, a gold medalist, and the woman who helped the USA women’s gymnastics team earn a gold medal with a final vault for the ages.
This story was originally published on July 30, 2019, and updated during the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 outbreak.