ATLANTA -- "I can't feel my leg," Kerri Strug told her coach.
"Shake it out, shake it out," Bela Karolyi replied. "You've got to go one more."
Emmitt Smith plays with a separated shoulder. Brady Anderson plays with appendicitis. And, yesterday, Kerri Strug vaulted with an ankle injury that would leave her with a severe sprain and two torn ligaments.
What was at stake?
Only everything Strug had worked for.
Only a gold medal in women's team gymnastics.
Only a United States first in the Olympics.
"Please, God, help me out here," Strug said. "I've just got to vault one more time."
This is what athletes do.
Whatever the injury, however great the pain, they try to perform.
Strug's injury occurred on her first of two vaults, in the team's last routine.
"I heard a snap in my foot," Strug said last night, arriving at a news conference on crutches after returning from an Atlanta hospital.
"I was really scared."
Yet, she vaulted.
Courageously, she vaulted.
Gloriously, she vaulted.
And then they carried her away.
"I think all of us would have done the same," U.S. gymnast Shannon Miller would say later.
But Strug is the one who did it.
Strug, who had been overshadowed by her more heralded teammates. Strug, who had worked her entire career to earn the anchor spot, and had no intention of blowing it.
They will replay these scenes forever:
Strug sprinting toward her second vault, flying through the air, landing on both feet.
Balancing on one foot, collapsing to the mat, leaving on a stretcher.
Returning in Karolyi's arms, taking the victory stand with her leg in a splint, waving her flowers to the roaring crowd as Karolyi carried her away.
It was one of the all-time Olympic moments.
And no matter how callous it might have seemed for the United States to allow her to continue -- indeed, push her back into the competition -- understand that this was Strug's decision.
"She never said to me, 'I can't do it,' " Karolyi said.
No, she said quite the opposite:
"I will. I will. I will."
"Repeating it like a little angel," Karolyi said.
This was Willis Reed coming out for Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Kirk Gibson limping to the plate and hitting a game-winning home run in the World Series.
Only this time, the hero was a woman.
A 4-foot-7 woman from Tucson, Ariz., who made the ultimate sports sacrifice, relinquishing her chance for individual glory for the sake of her team.
Strug, 18, said she had "mixed emotions" about the likelihood that she will miss the women's all-around competition, but none of the other U.S. gymnasts will emerge from these Games a bigger star.
It turned out the U.S. team would have won without her vault, but no one knew that at the time, not in the crucible of the moment, with so much uncertain.
Dominique Moceanu had scored only a 9.20 after slipping on the landings of both her vaults. The scores of two Russians in the floor exercise had not yet been determined.
"It was a nightmare starting to happen," Strug said. "Everything we had worked for was falling apart in a few seconds. I've been through so much pain before. I had to at least try."
The way gymnastics works, six women compete, and the five highest scores count. Strug scored a 9.162 on her ill-fated first vault -- less than Moceanu.
What if the Russians had nailed their routines?
What if the U.S. team had to count Moceanu's score?
"Nobody could take away from her the chance to do that second vault," said U.S. coach Martha Karolyi, the wife of Bela.
"You don't think about it. You go for it," said former Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci, another former Karolyi pupil.
"She just didn't want to end with a miss," said Miller's coach, Steve Nunno. "That was Kerri Strug, saying, 'I'm going.' "
This is a sport where books are written about the demands placed on young female gymnasts, the mistreatment that borders on child abuse, the reckless pursuit of glory by parents and coaches.
Some will see this as merely another chapter in that disturbing saga, but Strug is no 14-year-old pixie. No, she's a teen-ager on the verge of adulthood, heading to UCLA to study communications.
"I'm 18," Strug said. "I can make my own choices."
She limped back to the runway for her second vault, clearly in pain. But no one tried to stop her. The thought never even occurred.
"I had no hesitation," Karolyi said. "That's a once-in-a-lifetime situation. If I were in that position, even with a broken neck, I would go."
That is what athletes do.
They don't back down.
They don't forsake their team.
"The gold was kind of slipping away," Strug said. "I knew if I didn't do the last vault, we weren't going to win the gold."
This time, she heard a crunch when she landed.
But she scored a 9.712.
A 9.712 on one leg with everything at stake and the crowd of more than 32,000 at the Georgia Dome roaring.
"I don't know how I did it," Strug said. "But I did."
She hopped on one foot for a moment, then dropped to her hands and knees. She tried to crawl off the mat, and two coaches carried her to the stretcher.
"I don't want to go to the hospital. I don't want to go to the hospital," she pleaded with Karolyi.
"You won't go to the hospital," Karolyi said. "You'll go with all the girls on the podium to enjoy the moment."
Karolyi carried her back to the deafening arena. Moceanu and Miller helped her up to the victory stand.
She stood there on her good leg, flexing the other one to keep it loose, twisting it back and forth slightly.
Who will ever forget it?
"That's a tough kid," Comaneci said. "She's going to be very strong in her life."
Pub Date: 7/24/96