U.S. gymnasts win gold as Strug vaults the pain She hits last landing despite bad ankle

team win 1st ever for women

Atlanta Olympics

July 24, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Before a flag-waving, "U-S-A" chanting crowd of 35,400 at the Georgia Dome last night, an experienced and determined bunch of teen-age girls shook off the ghosts of past American disappointments and, in the case of Kerri Strug, a badly injured ankle, to win the women's team gymnastic competition for the first time in Olympic history.

Strug, an 18-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., shook off the numbing pain in her left leg and landed on both feet before hopping on her right foot and then collapsing in agony on the mat. Before she was helped to her feet, the judges awarded Strug a score of 9.712, giving the Americans the victory by .821 of a point over Russia. Romania took a bronze.

"I felt obligated to vault," Strug would say a couple of hours later after returning from a local hospital, where X-rays helped determine that her left ankle was severely sprained with two torn ligaments. "The gold medal was on the line."

If the gold medal belonged to the U.S. team, the moment belonged to Strug, one of three members of the 1992 Olympic team that won a bronze medal in Barcelona, Spain. With her coach, Bela Karolyi, carrying her on and off the podium, the fans showered her with their appreciation.

It was Strug's grittiness that characterized the American team. Both Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu came back from injuries in the past month after missing the U.S. Olympic Trials. Another member of this year's team, Amy Chow, performed with confidence despite hitting her face on the balance beam at the trials.

"This is the first time we've had all our gymnasts healthy at the same time," said Mary Lee Tracy, one of the U.S. coaches. "The strength and maturity of this team has led them to the gold."

The U.S. victory ended decades of dominance by their Eastern European rivals. After overcoming a slight deficit to the Russians after the first of four rotations, after distancing themselves from both the Russians and the Romanians after the third, the Americans sensed that the gold medal was within their grasp.

But after Moceanu, who suffered a stress fracture in her right leg at the U.S. nationals in Knoxville, Tenn., six weeks ago, missed badly on both her vaults, the Americans believed they needed a strong routine by Strug. After injuring herself on the first of two vaults, Strug charged down the runway and stuck a clean landing.

"It took a lot of guts," said Martha Karolyi, one of Strug's coaches in Houston and the head coach of the U.S. team. "But that's Kerri."

The victory reduced the Russian team to tears and the Romanians to excuses, saying that injuries to two of their top gymnasts had weakened their performance. But it was apparent to the coaches of both teams that the American team was different than the ones in the past.

"This team was better than the '84 team," said Romanian coach Octavian Belu, referring to a team coached by Bela Karolyi and led by Mary Lou Retton that won a silver medal in Los Angeles, an Olympic competition softened by the Soviet Union's absence. "They looked like a very strong army."

It was an army without any generals, but with a lot of foot soldiers. Despite a less-than-spectacular performance by Miller, a former world champion, and a near-disastrous vault routine by Moceanu, the U.S. team was helped by a deep and versatile lineup that saw five of its seven members finish among the top 17 competing here.

"I'm so excited I can't even say what it feels like," said Miller, 19, who still managed to finish second in the overall point standings behind reigning world champion Lilia Podkopayeva of the Ukraine. "I have an Olympic gold medal after four years of hard work."

Miller will lead a group of three Americans into tomorrow's all-around competition. Dominique Dawes of Gaithersburg, with one of the most confident showings in her career, finished sixth. Strug was seventh, but with the injury will likely relinquish her spot to Moceanu, who finished 11th. The top 36 gymnasts, with a maximum of three per country, advance.

It was apparent after the first two rotations that the United States was going to win the gold. Coming into the day .127 of a point behind the Russians, the Americans took over the lead after the uneven bars and kept adding to it.

"We hit our bars, we hit our beams and we knew we couldn't be stopped," said Tracy.

As the crowd roared its approval with each perfect landing, as the distraught Russian gymnasts seemed to signal defeat, the U.S. team went down to its final routine not knowing that victory was clinched before Strug's second vault.

"We didn't know until the end," said Moceanu.

But in the end, it didn't matter. In the end, the U.S. team had won. The flags began to wave more feverishly and the chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" grew louder. And, in the end, the medals hung from the necks of these seven teen-agers like fine pieces of jewelry.

"I know it will be very hard to take this medal off," said Dawes. "I think I'll shower with it and sleep with it tonight."

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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