You would have missed it if you blinked. Kerri's final vault in the 1996 Olympics was over in a split second, but the fanfare goes on and on. Some people marvel that Kerri became a star so fast, but the truth is that few dreams come true in the wink of an eye.
Kerri always called
Growing up with an older brother and sister meant there was always something happening. All three of them were active in sports, and Kerri's mom was kept busy carting everyone back and forth to practices and games.
The first to fall in love with gymnastics was Lisa, the oldest. She started competing when she was 8 years old, before Kerri was even born. A few years later, Kerri declared that she wanted to be just like her older sister, and she was soon enrolled in a "Mom and Tot's" gymnastics class.
When she was 8, Kerri competed in her first meet. She worked hard and quickly reached higher and higher levels. Looking back, Kerri says her move up the gymnastics ladder was something that just seemed to happen naturally.
Then came a day when Kerri had
to decide just how much she loved gymnastics. When she was 12, the
Olympics no longer seemed like an impossible dream, but she knew she
wouldn't make it without a good coach. That coach was Bela Karolyi,
and Kerri couldn't train with him unless she left
"I wanted to really go somewhere in gymnastics, so I figured I would have to leave home," she said. "And if you're going to leave home, you might as well come to the best."
Kerri headed for Bela's Houston-based gym in January 1991. She was 13 years old.
Karolyi lived up to his reputation for being tough. Kerri worked out 6 to 7 days a week, 8 hours a day. When she and the other girls were training, Bela demanded complete obedience, both in and out of the gym. Bela and his wife, Martha, watched everything from what they ate to when they slept.
While Kerri was training, she lived with a series of host families. To ease the transition, the families usually had at least one child involved in gymnastics. Although Kerri was still very young, she was basically living on her own. Her parents were hundreds of miles away.
"It was very hard at times," she says. "When you got down or had a bad day, you got to a phone and talked to your parents a lot."
Luckily, Kerri was not entirely
Such run of the mill treats may not seem like a big deal, but back then Kerri had very little time to herself. In some ways, she traded her childhood for gymnastics.
"A gymnast's career is pretty short. Most of them will peak at 15 or 16," she said when she was 14 years old. "When I get through with this, I have the rest of my life to do all those other things. This means too much to me."
As the Barcelona Olympics
loomed closer, all of the work and sacrifices Kerri made seemed
worth it. The last day of the Olympic Trials was held in
The final rotation of the optional competition was the floor exercise, one of Kerri's best events. Sitting in the stadium, we felt confident she would make the team, but then disaster struck. Kerri fell.
Because gymnasts are taught not
to keep track of the scores during competition, Kerri had little
idea how she was doing when she fell. For a while, she was certain
she didn't make the cut, but when all was said and done, she landed
the fourth slot on a six person team. Kerri Strug became the
Kerri's time in
Life became very uncertain after the Olympics in 1992. She didn't think she would compete long enough to make the 1996 team, and she was looking forward to a life that didn't revolve around gymnastics. Nevertheless, Kerri couldn't seem to get the sport out of her system, and soon after the Olympics, she set out to find a new coach.
She spent 3 years bouncing from one gym to another. Kerri wasn't sure what she was looking for, but nothing felt right. No one could push her to her limits the way Bela had, and she didn't feel comfortable with any coaching style. In 3 years, Kerri trained with 3 coaches. Each new coach meant a move across the country, a new host family, and a new school.
The last straw came at a meet
School became Kerri's focus
when she moved back to
While Kerri was away from home, however, she had devote so much time to working out that she had to make special arrangements for school. For years she had an abbreviated schedule. She attended classes three hours a day and trained in the morning and afternoon. She squeezed homework in before bed and on weekends.
When Kerri returned home, life slowly got back to normal. She went to school like a normal teenager, and she spent time with her family and friends. She continued to work out, but her training schedule wasn't nearly as strict as it once was.
Kerri was just beginning to
compete again when another blow rocked her gymnastics career. She
entered a small meet in
She was on the uneven bars when her grip slipped and she swung backwards off the bar. When Kerri hit the mat, her legs bounced over her head, severely pulling her back muscles. It was a very painful injury, but it could have been much worse. It took Kerri another 6 months to fully recover.
Dealing with injuries and setbacks is something all athletes face. Sometimes it was hard to keep going, but Kerri always managed to plow past the problems.
"A lot of times I thought about all the work I put into it, and I didn't want to blow it after I had gotten so close." More than once this philosophy pushed Kerri to try one more time when things went wrong.
In 1995, Kerri graduated from
her hometown high school and realized that the Olympics were just
over the horizon. Three years earlier she had missed her chance to
compete in the All-Around competition by .001, and she had something
to prove to herself. She wanted a second chance to make her dreams
Kerri had been accepted at UCLA, but she knew she couldn't give both college and gymnastics her full attention. She worked hard to graduate high school a year ahead of schedule, and this gave her the cushion she needed to put college off a year. Once Kerri made this decision, she knew it was time to return to Karolyi's gym.
In 1994, Bela had come out of retirement to coach 1992 Olympian Kim Zmeskal and a new prodigy, Dominique Moceanu. Returning to Karolyi wouldn't be the easiest path, but Kerri hoped he would be able to get her back on track.
Kerri rode the wave of good
fortune all the way to the Olympic Trials in
How did Kerri celebrate this huge accomplishment? Bela gave her one night off and she spent it with her family, sneaking a few bites of pizza. Even with so much to be happy about, Kerri remembered to pick the cheese off the pizza so it wouldn't be quite so sinful.
In the three weeks before the Olympics, Kerri learned that an unexpected twist in strategy would give her a real shot at the Olympic All-Around competition, her ultimate goal.
During each rotation in a gymnastics meet, the scores start low and go up. For instance, if there are six girls competing on the vault, and the first girl and the last girl each do very good routines, it is likely that the last girl will get a higher score than the first girl. Judges do this to ensure they have room to maneuver in case someone does a spectacular routine.
Usually coaches want to save their best athletes for the last positions, but they want solid performances in the beginning as well. Historically, coaches placed Kerri, who was always considered to be a very reliable performer, in one of the earlier slots of a rotation.
At the Atlanta Olympics,
however, head coach Martha Karolyi and assistant coach Mary Lee
Tracy decided to take a new approach. Rather than keeping the same
old seating chart, they decided it would be more equitable to base
order solely on performance at the Olympic Trials. This meant Kerri
took the enviable anchor position on both floor exercise and vault!
Well, Kerri Strug did make the All-Around competition in the 1996 Olympics. Who knows what might have happened had she not been injured?
It took a while for Kerri to realize that her
last vault said more than any medal could. It declared that not only
is Kerri among the best gymnasts in the world, but she is also
strong-willed and brave. Gymnastics is a fleeting ambition, but the
qualities Kerri displayed on
The Wink of an Eye