Olympic glory is not always about smooth success. It’s also about grit, determination and a refusal to bow to setbacks. And sometimes that means dealing with both mental and physical pain. The USA’s Kerri Strug was a key member of the American gymnastics team which went to Atlanta 1996 in pursuit of the country’s first ever gold medal in the sport.
Roared on by an enthusiastic home crowd, they seemed to be coasting home, having built a very healthy lead with just one rotation remaining.
The final apparatus was the vault. There were good scores from the first four athletes – Jaycie Phelps, Amy Chow, Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes - but then Dominique Moceanu stuttered with both of her attempts. That left the Americans relying on Strug to seal victory.
On paper, it looked a foregone conclusion. Strug was an established specialist on the apparatus and opted for a vault that she had landed many times in the past. But not today. Instead, she fell back upon landing, heard a crack in her ankle, and then felt a sharp pain in her left ankle.
She was in agony, and felt she couldn’t possibly leap again. But her coach urged her on, saying the team needed a good score, and her teammates joined in the chorus. None of them knew how bad the injury was; all they knew was that a good performance on the vault could be the difference between gold and silver.
So, battling through the pain barrier, Krug vaulted, landed, smiled for the judges and then collapsed just as she was awarded a score of 9.712. It was enough to guarantee the gold medal, although it subsequently emerged that the Americans would still have won even without Strug’s brave effort.
Krug’s bravery for the sake of her team, came to symbolise how athletes push themselves to the very limit in the face of adversity.