by Andrew Stark
I started thinking about my single greatest Olympic memory, and thoughts of the original Dream Team kept coming to my mind. In 1992, and still to this day, that collection of basketball players is the best ever assembled.
However, the Dream Team never had that one moment. Those players were supposed to win the gold medal, and they did – in shockingly easy fashion. But long before and after the Dream Team, the U.S. has won Olympic basketball gold. As a nation, we have won 13 gold medals in men’s basketball, including the one earned by the ’92 team.
So, what is the greatest Olympic moment in my lifetime?
For me, that moment came in a sport I know little about, but I can vividly remember where I was when Kerri Strug nailed a near-perfect landing on her final vault jump, securing the first and only U.S. women’s team all-around gold medal. Not only do I recall where I was, but can still feel the goose bumps come over me as I think about it.
Strug was the final competitor and the last hope for Olympic gymnastics gold. The previous two American jumps had ended in falls on the vault, which was the final event. As the last competitor, Strug needed to score better than 9.3 on her first jump and 9.4 on her second attempt. Any less, and another American Olympic heartbreak would follow.
The United States had medaled just twice before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the women’s all-around competition – a bronze in 1948 and a silver in 1984 with American hero Mary Lou Retton leading the way.
Now the nation’s hopes were left to Strug, who had become the youngest U.S. gymnast in 1992, when she competed as a 14-year-old. As an established veteran and team leader, Strug was given the last chance to make U.S. Olympic history.
On her first jump, Strug took off and looked technically sound until she stumbled on her dismount. She had landed awkwardly and, in the process, badly sprained her left ankle.
The judges ruled a 9.162, short of what the U.S. needed, and hopes of Olympic gold rested on the injured ankle of the 18-year-old from Tucson, Ariz.
Wincing in pain, Strug walked back up to the runway to begin her approach, the weight of a country’s hopes on her back. She took one deep breath and started her gallop down the runway.
Strug set to flight and nailed a near-perfect landing – albeit on one foot. With hands raised and one foot firmly planted on the ground, Strug fell down in pain, not knowing if her best was good enough. Coaches rushed over to lift her off the mat and carry her to longtime U.S. coach Bela Karolyi. As Karolyi grabbed Strug, the score was announced.
A 9.712, and Olympic gold for Strug and the Americans.
The images of Karolyi carrying her up to the podium to accept her Olympic medal, as Strug’s foot was heavily wrapped, is something I will always remember.
Strug didn’t set out to be an Olympic hero, as the Dream Team had done four years before her triumph, but she did what she had practiced for her entire gymnastics career. And when the eyes of the entire country, and beyond, were fixed on her every move, she delivered a remarkable performance.
Strug’s moment is part of what makes the Olympics so great. Even now, watching a grainy YouTube video, I realize that in that one instance of pride and determination, Strug allowed an entire country to rise and cheer for all the right reasons.