On July 23, 1996, American gymnast Kerri Strug hobbled to her starting position on an injured ankle for one last attempt at Olympic glory. Team USA had a dominant lead over the Russians, but with two poor landings from Strug’s teammate, 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu, and with the scores of two Russian gymnasts yet to be tallied, it appeared that USA’s gold medal chances rested squarely on the injured Strug’s shoulders. Strug sprinted 77.3-feet down the runway, launched herself into the air, twisted, flipped, and landed (practically on one foot) for a score of 9.712, mathematically guaranteeing a gold medal for her team.
While Strug’s vault is one of the most memorable moments in recent Olympic history for many American audiences, special attention was paid to her performance in July 2021 after American gymnast Simon Biles pulled out of the competition. These comparisons typically criticized Biles for being “weak” while praising Strug for being “strong.”
One viral post (which made no direct reference to Biles) claimed that Strug fought through the pain of her ankle injury because it was “the only way Team USA had a chance at Gold.” This idea is central to most people’s memory of Strug’s heroic vault, as demonstrated in the Olympics’ own recounting of the event in the above-displayed video.
In 1996 Kerri Strug went back out on the mats for the finals & had a spectacular performance despite a severely injured ankle.
She did it because it was the only way Team USA had a chance at Gold.
Due to her effort, Team USA won Gold. Amazing grit.
The great ones find a way. pic.twitter.com/Rg6Mv3z6Gg
— Chris Buskirk (@thechrisbuskirk) July 27, 2021
As social media users touted Strug’s bravery, some countered that Strug’s final vault wasn’t actually necessary and that Strug should have, like Biles, removed herself from competition.
Strug was forced back on to the vault after Team USA had already clinched gold by an abusive Bela Karoli who didn't add up the scores correctly. She was carried off by Larry Nassar, serial rapist.
In retrospect, this is awful, not heroic, regardless of how you feel about Biles. https://t.co/4pKFACSwJq
— Emily Zanotti (@emzanotti) July 27, 2021
We don’t doubt that Strug’s performance showed amazing grit, nor the fact that her final vault solidified Team USA’s gold medal. However, when the final scores of the event were tallied, it was revealed that Team USA could have won gold even if Strug had sat out the final event.
Sports Illustrated wrote in 1996:
She was the last U.S. gymnast on the last apparatus of the last day of the women’s team competition. She thought she needed to stick her last vault for the U.S. to clinch the gold medal over Russia. In a moment that will be compared to Shun Fujimoto’s gut-wrenching dismount from the rings with a broken leg to win the 1976 team gold medal for Japan or–for sheer drama–to Mary Lou Retton’s perfect 10 on the vault at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Strug provided the most memorable athletic moment of the first four days of the Atlanta Games with a teeth-grinding 9.712 vault that helped the U.S. win its first Olympic gold medal in the women’s team event.
The U.S. would have won the gold without Strug’s last vault, but neither she nor her teammates knew that at the time. And without the benefit of that knowledge, the 18-year-old Tucson native slammed off the takeoff board, slapped her two hands down on the vaulting horse with a puff of white resin dust and nailed a landing that she absolutely believed she had to have for the gold medal. She then found the strength to straighten her 4’9″, 87-pound body just long enough to hop on one foot and turn twice–once to each table of judges–before dropping to her knees with what was later diagnosed as a third-degree sprained ankle.
Strug’s final vault wasn’t needed to secure Team USA’s gold medal. But did Strug and her team know it at the time? It’s easy to look back and make calculations based on hypotheticals, but what about in that moment? Was it mathematically possible for Russia to win without Strug’s final vault? That answer is a little more nuanced.
In 1997, one of the officials who was working the scoring table at the event told Sports Illustrated that she was surprised Strug did the final vault because Team USA had already secured the victory.
“In the excitement of the moment, I think they forgot how to add … I was wondering why she went again. I thought, Gosh, that’s brave when she really doesn’t have to do it.”
But just how secure was USA’s lead?
After Strug injured her ankle on her first vault attempt, Strug and her coaches only had about 30 seconds to decide if she would vault again. The team had once held a dominant lead, but with three missed landings in a row and a few Russian gymnasts yet to have their scores recorded, Strug wrote in her biography “Landing on my Feet” that she felt the gold medal was still up for grabs.
Our USA team had one chance to clinch the gold. I had one vault and one moment to score high enough to win, but there was so much pain in my ankle. When I fell on my first vault, I turned it badly and felt a severe pop. I knew something definitely was wrong, but I had only seconds to either try the final vault or walk of the podium and leave the gold medal up for grabs. For me, that decision had been made years before I made the walk to the top of the runway.
Strug goes on to write in her biography to say that the Russians could have still won the event if their final two gymnasts scored 9.9 or higher. After her final vault, however, they no longer had a chance:
I scored a 9.712. The vault and the unbelievably wild reaction from the crowd were more than the Russian team could overcome. Had I not been able to do my second vault, the Russians could have won the gold with a couple of 9.9s. But after I hit it, the best their final two performers could come up with was a 9.725 and a 9.5.
In the moment, it appears that it was still technically possible (even if highly improbable) for the Russians to win as Strug decided whether to perform her final vault. But if Team USA could have waited just a few more moments, they would have seen that Russia’s penultimate performance did not earn perfect marks.
In 1996, The Baltimore Sun published an article arguing for gymnasts to be allowed a “timeout” during competition. During the 1996 Olympics, the Sun argues, if Strug was allowed to call a timeout the team could have gotten a clearer picture of the leader’s table and Strug wouldn’t have had to perform on her injured ankle. In the heat of the moment, however, the score was close enough that it felt necessary for Strug to continue.
The Baltimore Sun writes:
Strug thought she needed to land a clean vault to both help her team beat Russia and help herself displace 14-year-old teammate Dominique Moceanu as the third American in today’s all-around competition. She definitely needed a good score to pass Moceanu, who had fallen on both her vaults, but there remains some confusion about whether the U.S. team needed it to win.
It depends on whose interpretation you believe. If you ask Karolyi, he’ll tell you two Russian gymnasts still had their floor exercise routines to finish and who knows what could have happened? If there were two left, they needed nearly perfect scores to overtake what seemed even to them to be an insurmountable U.S. lead. In truth, one Russian had finished and had not had her score posted, but she did not do a routine that was going to earn her a 10, or anything close to it. As things turned out, they received scores of 9.5 and 9.75 and the Americans won by .821. As things turned out, Strug’s vault wasn’t needed.
In retrospect, after all of the scores had been tallied, it was made clear that Strug could have sat out her final performance, and Team USA would have still won gold. In the moment, however, it was less clear. While it was highly improbable that the Russians would score back-to-back 9.9s, Strug decided that she’d rather risk her ankle than risk losing the gold medal.
I knew we needed that second vault. I knew how long I had waited to be in the position I was in. But my foot just wasn’t right…
I went through my regular routine again. I looked toward Bela, took a deep breath, visualized the vault, swung my arms in front of me, and lined up exactly 77.3 feet away from my takeoff point. i reached down and twisted my left foot with my hand, trying to work out the pain, but all I felt was a crackling. The green light came on and I thought to myself, “You can and you will do this.”
I began my run and honestly could not feel my leg. I was afraid I was going to fall right there o the runway in front of a billion people. It felt like my ankle was swinging loosely from the rest of my leg, like it was hanging by a string. it felt as if I was running so slow, but when I got to my mark at 45. 8 feet, I hit it perfectly….
I slammed into the floor a little short, but clean, and immediately I heard another big rip in my ankle.