Greg Hansen: Strug's Olympic story still compels

2012-08-05T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Strug's Olympic story still compelsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 05, 2012 12:00 am  • 

A few weeks ago, munching a soft pretzel at the Tucson Mall, I thought I saw Kerri Strug walk by, pushing a baby stroller.

I left my seat and followed, confirming that it was indeed Kerri Strug and her 5-month old son, Tyler.

I watched as she rolled through the mall's central corridor. I watched to see if anyone would react to the darling of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics on her home turf.

Nobody knew.

Kerri Strug has been the most compelling story of my modest newspaper career, possibly the most prominent sports figure in Tucson history, and yet 16 years after her epic gold medal vault in the Georgia Dome, she can be as inconspicuous as any 34-year-old mother at the mall.

She has been on "Saturday Night Live," "Hollywood Squares," "20/20," traded laughs with Leno and Letterman, visited President Clinton at the White House and then faded from public view as quickly as a box of Wheaties (yes, she was on the cover of that cereal box in 1996 and 1997).

Kerri was brought back to our Olympics consciousness Friday night when NBC chose to revisit her story at the outset of its prime time coverage.

I was rubbing down goose bumps for 30 minutes.

Strug is in London this week, partly from her endorsement contract with Hilton Hotels, and partly because, every four years, her legend grows.

I can't recall anyone in sports, not even Jim Brown or Sandy Koufax, going out on top the way Kerri Strug did in 1996.

On the afternoon of July 23, 1996, I sat in the media section at the Georgia Dome, positioned next to a savvy gymnastics scribe from the Kansas City Star. He could make sense of the confusing gymnastics scoring system that I could not. Often, five events are held simultaneously in Olympic gymnastics. It is not at all like the tidy package NBC edits for prime time presentation.

"If Strug can stick this vault," he told me, "I think America wins the gold medal."

Strug landed awkwardly on her first vault, wrecking her left ankle, scoring a poor 9.162.

The man from the Kansas City Star said, "It all comes down to this (next) vault."

A day earlier, at a news conference in a makeshift tent outside the Georgia Dome, Strug's coach, the irrepressible Bela Karolyi, gave me the first of a series of unforgettable quotes.

"The light needs to shine on Kerri's face," he said. "I want to tell her 'good job, what a guy.'"

In the 30 seconds Kerri was allotted to decide if she was physically capable of performing the vault, a rush of memories sprinted through my mind.

She had told me her first competitive meet was at old Bear Down Gym. She was 9. And I remembered fielding a call from former UA gymnastics coach Jim Gault, who was returning to America after escorting Kerri to her first international competition, in Europe. It was 1988.

This is what I wrote:

"… Jim Gault called from a faraway airport to report a few scores. He started talking. I started typing. 'I'm here with Kerri Strug, and we've just flown in from overseas and I'm telling you, she hit it big,' Gault said. 'She's got the potential to be extraordinary.'

" 'How do you spell Kerri?' " I asked. " 'Is it with one or two r's? With a y or an ie?? And how old is she?'"

"She's 11," Gault said.

I stopped typing. My urge was to suggest we wait at least until she was in high school to start writing about her in the newspaper.

"How good is she?" I asked.

"If she sticks with it, and I think she has the mentality to do it," Gault said, "she can be an Olympian."

On her final vault in Atlanta, Strug jumped into Olympic history. She scored 9.712. She limped off the mat, broke into tears, and was later carried to the gold medal ceremony by Karolyi.

Watching the old tape never fails to send a shiver down my back.

A few days later, she was accompanied to a downtown Atlanta news conference by a bodyguard, a police dog and her parents, Burt and Melanie Strug. She introduced her newest friend, super-agent Leigh Steinberg.

He estimated that Kerri would earn between $10 million and $15 million in the near future. "She'll last for quite a while," Steinberg said. "Fame is fleeting, but Kerri struck a chord inside a lot of people. I don't think it will go away."

Until a July day at the mall, I last saw Kerri in the fall of 2002 at Tom Matsumoto Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. She spent a year teaching second-graders and was gracious enough to let me sit in her class one morning.

"These kids don't have any idea about my gymnastics career," she told me. "I like it that way."

Now, married to Tucson attorney Robert Fischer III, Kerri Strug is a mother, a wife and, forever, an Olympic legend. If you see her at the mall, tell her the light still shines on her face.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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