Archdeacon: The ‘magnificent’ life of Kerri Strug

Credit: Photo by Skip Peterson / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Photo by Skip Peterson / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A couple of days ago, she said her 8-year-old daughter Alayna was with her Girl Scouts troop when some of the girls were trying to teach gymnastics moves:

“Alayna said, ‘Well, my mommy could help us. She did gymnastics.’”

While the pitch was undersold, the claim was right on the money.

Her mom did gymnastics — the way the mythical Rocky did boxing. The way the real-life USA hockey youngsters did the “Miracle on Ice” Olympics.

Alayna’s mother is Kerri Strug and there was a time when she was one of the most famous athletes in the world.

Her iconic moment from the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta has been forever preserved in Olympics lore.

Then a tiny teenager — 4-foot-8 and just 80 pounds — Strug was part of the Team USA women’s gymnastics squad known as the “Magnificent Seven.”

When the competition began, she didn’t command the top of the marque like some of her teammates — especially Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu — and she didn’t have the rise-to-the moment reputation that some of the others already had.

But that all changed as the competition came down to the final events.

The American women never had won an Olympic All-Around gold medal — that almost always belonged to the Soviets and post-breakup Russian teams and once, in recent times, to the Romanians — but in Atlanta, Team USA had a slim lead until things began to crumble late.

Moceanu uncharacteristically fell twice on the vault.

And on the first of her two vaults, Strug severely injured her left ankle when she landed awkwardly on her dismount and tumbled backwards onto her rear end. Although two ligaments were torn, she tried to mask the pain. But you saw the shock, the panic momentarily flicker across her face and cause her to curl her lip.

I covered those Olympics and I remember the scene. The Georgia Dome crowd of 32,000 gasped. In the stands, her parents covered their eyes.

Suddenly there was real concern that the Russians would take back the lead and claim gold again.

Strug’s final vault — if she somehow managed to hobble out there — would be Team USA’s last chance to seal the victory.

In the interval, she asked the team’s fabled, but controversial coach, Bela Karolyi: “Do we need this?”

As was recounted later, he said: “Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need one more time for gold.

“You can do it!...You better do it!”

With that, the 18-year-old Strug shed the ice bag, walked gingerly to the top of the 75-foot runway and, with a look of determination, came barreling toward the vaulting apparatus. She launched herself high into the air and perfectly landed the Yurchenko with a 1 ½ twist.

She held her pose for a second, then balanced on her right leg as she lifted her left foot — the way a flamingo might when standing in shallow water — and hopped in a circle with her arms raised in triumph. Eventually, she melted to the mat in tears.

At that moment she chiseled her likeness onto the Rushmore of Sports Resolve: joining the likes of Willis Reed limping out the dressing room to lead the New York Knick to victory in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals; Kirk Gibson, coming out of the Dodgers’ dugout on two bad legs to hit a pinch hit, walk-off home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series; and 44-year-old Archie Moore being knocked down and almost out four times — three in the first round — to come back and KO Yvon Durelle in their 1958 light heavyweight title fight in Montreal.

Strug’s 9.712 score assured the Americans of gold.

When it came time for the medal ceremony, Karolyi scooped her up in his arms — her left ankle and foot already were heavily bandaged — and carried her out to join her teammates as the crowd chanted “Kerri!...Kerri!”

Credit: AJC file photo

Credit: AJC file photo

In the days and weeks and now decades that have that followed, the little girl with the overwhelming grit has been embraced by everyone.

After the Atlanta Games, she visited the White House, made the cover of Sports Illustrated and was on the front of the Wheaties box. She was the grand marshal of the Fiesta Bowl parade; the star of an ESPN ad campaign and appeared on numerous TV shows, everything from Saturday Night Live and 90210 to Hollywood Squares and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

She had a voice cameo on King of the Hill and has been referenced in shows like Bojack Horseman, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Community, Roseanne, Murphy Brown and Saved by the Bell.

Eventually, she’d be enshrined in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame; would write two books — “Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams” and “Heart of Gold” — and not long ago, Olivia Wilde announced she was directing a biopic of Strug’s life.

But one of the most important things she got after sticking that landing in Atlanta was a firm reality check back home from her parents: Dr. Burt Strug and Melanie Barron Strug.

“I’ll be honest, right after the Olympics, maybe I wasn’t real pleased with them,” she said with a laugh as she spoke by phone from her Tucson, Arizona, home earlier this week.

“All of my teammates were going fulltime on a 65-city tour and I assumed I was going, too. But my parents were like ‘Whoa!”

“They said ‘We love you and we’re so proud of you, but you already took a year off from college. You will start school in the fall.’

“I was like, ‘This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! Why are you doing this?’

“But they had certain expectations of me and my siblings. Sure, they wanted me to embrace all the opportunities that came, but they also knew they had to lead me in the right direction. They could see the larger picture.

“They said, ‘There’s going to be another Olympics in four years and a new star.’ They got me back on track and guided me through a tough transition.”

She went to UCLA and got her masters at Stanford.

She married Washington, D.C. attorney Robert Fischer in 2010 and today the couple lives in Tucson — five doors from her parents — and have two children, Alayna and 11-year-old Tyler.

For the past 18 years she’s worked with the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

She’ll talk about some of this — and the role her Jewish faith plays as a wife, a mother and a champion of the kids in need — when she gives the keynote address at the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton’s Presidents Dinner today at 6 p.m. at the Boonshoft Center for Jewish Culture and Education.

Gold-medal goal

Strug admits she sacrificed a lot — she moved away from home at age 13 to train in Houston with Karolyi and his wife Marta, then other coaches in Oklahoma and Colorado Springs before returning to Houston — all because she was focused on one goal:

Winning Olympic gold.

She had been at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona — at 14, she was the youngest American athlete there — but she ended up sidelined on the bronze medal team.

So when it came down to that final vault in Atlanta, she felt she had a lot to prove:

“I just couldn’t walk away. If I hadn’t gone for that last vault, it always would have haunted me. It’s fortunate I came through at that moment. I’m very proud that I was able to accomplish such a big thing at such a young age.

“Clearly, it’s one of the highlights of my life, some people said it would be the pinnacle, but in truth, this July it will be 27 years since that happened. Life keeps moving on and you have different chapters and you take experiences from each.”

And that gave her a unique perspective three years ago when some people held her up as the praise-worthy flip side to Simone Biles dropping out of the competition early at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because of immense stress.

The decision drew the wrath of social media trolls and some sports media types, as well.

Strug tweeted out her love and support for Biles and reiterated that when we spoke:

“Everybody was comparing the two of us, but they were totally different circumstances. Hers was a mental thing, not physical, and they’re not the same.

“We need to look at each individual and respect their decision. No one knows what another person is experiencing.

“Simone is a phenomenal athlete, an incredible gymnast. I supported whatever she decided. She knew better than anyone what was right for her. She had nothing to prove. Me, I had everything to prove. I was the last competitor. We were going for gold.

“And back then it was a totally different era.”



Several gymnasts who endured the hardships of Karolyi’s training over the years have since criticized him and his wife for conditioning athletes like Strug to push through pain and not challenge their authority.

Just as she’s glad she attempted that last vault, the 45-year-old Strug also is happy she listened to her parents’ directive about going to college right after the Games.

“In college, like many young people do, I realized the world was a much larger place than I knew,” she said. “For so long I only had focused on me and my one goal. I realized I wanted to focus on others and should look for a way to contribute.”

That’s not saying college came easy.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I went through a lot,” she said. “A lot of athletes are so Type A, but really lead a sheltered life. You have these larger goals you’re used to pursuing, but you don’t know about finding everyday success.

“You don’t want to be ‘normal.’ You’re used to standing out. So I had to ask myself: ‘How am I going to be self-fulfilled? How am I going to get self-satisfaction?’

“Statistically, I know a much larger percentage of people graduate from college than win an Olympic gold medal, but for me, getting a college degree was a really big deal. I’d always been training and didn’t have the academic background many of my peers had. I hadn’t taken all those AP classes.

“But I realized I could take the lessons I learned in athletics and implement them into my academics. I worked really hard and went to class and read all the material.”

After college she taught second graders at Matsumoto Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., then realized the classroom maybe wasn’t her best fit.

She moved to Washington, D.C. in 2003 and after a couple of early positions — one with the White House, one with the Treasury Department — she found her niche with in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. She audits programs that receive federal funding and she’s taken a special interest in various groups in need, including tribal youth and girls in the juvenile justice system.

Family life

Strug and her husband are involved in their children’s pursuits, whether it’s providing transportation or cheering them from the stands.

Tyler is on a travel hockey team and plays tennis and soccer. Alayna is part of a travelling dance team.

The children went to a Jewish preschool at a conservative temple, but they now attend public school.

Although she said she’s not overly religious, Strug said “I’m very proud being Jewish.” She said they celebrate the High Holy Days and are “culturally Jewish.”

She said she teaches her children the tenets of her religion and how they can guide them in their everyday lives: “Things like having integrity. Having perseverance. Being a leader. Seeing light in the dark. All those core values that you learn through Judaism.”

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day and she said the kids tried to make her feel special.

“They were so cute,” she laughed. “They still like me!

“Tyler made some nice cards and got me flowers and Alayna is very creative and she designed a whole coupon book I can use throughout the year. She must have gotten a coupon template off the internet and then colored it in. Each one had a request I can hand her for different things.”

Like what?

“Well, I have it right here, let me tell you,” she said, her tone filling with delight:

“There’s giving me hugs and kisses. Going on walks, which I like to do with them. Making me breakfast in bed. And making me scones. She and her daddy make some really yummy strawberry scones.”

So much for the people who told her after the ‘96 Olympics that “nothing will ever top this…This will be the pinnacle of your life”.

Like her book said: She landed on her feet.

Hugs and kisses…walks…yummy scones.

That sounds golden, too.

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