BOSTON — Kerri Strug's famous vault may be the defining moment of the Centennial Olympics. With teeth clenched, Strug pounded down the ramp, cartwheeled onto the springboard and spun over the vault, capturing the essence of Olympic gold: triumph over adversity.
The 80-pound gymnast exhibited all the qualities of a consummate champion - self-sacrifice, unwavering courage, and gritty determination. Millions of Americans are hailing Strug as this summer's heroine, the young lady who may have given up a chance for personal achievement in individual competition to give all she had for her team.
Strug fell on her previous vault, apparently injuring her ankle. But she pulled herself off the mat and led the US women's gymnastics team to its first ever Olympic gold medal.
At the time, her vault was seen as pivotal. No one on the floor knew the exact scores and didn't know how close the American women - dubbed the magnificent seven - were to the Russians (who have dominated the field for the past two decades).
"In my 35-year coaching career, I have no similar experience," coach Bela Karolyi told reporters after the competition.
"I knew she will not say no. There was no hesitation. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said the Romanian-born coach, who also led Romanian Nadia Comaneci and American Mary Lou Retton to gold medals.
Until now, the serious and self-effacing Strug has not been the darling of the media or advertisers. She doesn't have an agent, a Kodak commercial ( la Dominique Dawes) or an autobiography (as Dominique Moceanu does).
Strug was a 14-year-old - the youngest on the team - when she competed at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where the US women's team won a bronze metal. But she finished fourth overall and didn't qualify for individual competition. In the 1995 World Championships she placed seventh.
Never satisfied with her level of performance, and sometimes criticized for displaying a lack of confidence in big competitions, Shrug switched coaches and training sites four times since the last Olympic games. She left Karolyi in Houston, went to Orlando, then on to Oklahoma City, moved back home to train with local coaches in Tucson, Ariz., before returning to Karolyi last December.
The mentor match finally took. In March, she won the American Cup, her first international title of any significance. Just before the summer Olympics Strug said she felt she had matured enough to overcome past performance jitters.
Her performance Tuesday was clear testament to her transformation into a world-class competitor who can handle the pressure.
The American team had nailed their routines on the balance beam - an event that they had struggled with in the compulsories on Sunday night. The team had a slight lead over Russians and seemed to be firing on all cylinders - until they got to the vault. Then, they became cautious.
Steve Nunno, who was Strug's coach for two years before she returned to Karolyi, noticed the young ladies were becoming hesitant.
"I was standing down at the [springboard], and I could see what was happening," Nunno told reporters. "The girls were slowing down at the board. I ran up the sidelines and told Bela, 'Bela, they're slowing down at the board - they're trying to be conservative.' I just didn't want to see it slip away."
Moceanu, who usually excels on the vault and performed just before Strug, landed on her bottom in both her jumps, so it was left to Strug to pull the team through. So with the kind of injury that physicians say can keep baseball and basketball players benched for weeks, Strug performed the vault of her lifetime.
She does not feel like a hero, she said after the event. "Everyone else had put so much time and sacrifice into it. I couldn't give up."
Strug's scores were seventh-best overall among the 104 performers, qualifying her for the individual and all-around events, along with teammates Miller (No. 2 overall) and Dawes (No. 5).
The coaching staff wasn't sure at presstime if Strug would be able to compete in the individual competition last night. She told NBC's Today show yesterday that "she was taking it hour by hour," having therapy on her ankle today, and "praying a lot."
*Garrett Boehm contributed to this report.