It’s a question many gymnastics fans probably don’t want to ponder – whether it be because of the time that has passed or the positive result that transpired – but 26 years after a then-18-year-old Kerri Strug sacrificed her left ankle for Olympic team gold, the first thing that comes to my mind on the anniversary of such a feat is: would that iconic moment have happened in the present day?
My gut tells me no.
Not in a world where Simone Biles prioritizes her mental health over dominating another Olympic Games.
Not in a world where Larry Nassar and other physically and mentally abusive coaches are being, rightfully, taken down by the young adults and minors – the Survivors – they once abused.
Not when the best athletes in the world – snowboarder Chloe Kim, alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, swimmer Michael Phelps, and many more – have been empowered to not only speak up about their struggles but, more importantly, make their own decisions, on their own terms.
From the outside looking in, Strug’s decision to vault with a serious injury doesn’t seem like a mental health case, but 1996 was a different time, when society as a whole and especially a Bela Karolyi-type would pressure a vulnerable teenager to “push through.”
Strug herself recounted the life-changing moment for ESPNW in 2016.
“I knew something was wrong with my left leg,” Strug told Alyssa Roenigk. “Then I fell on my first vault, I couldn’t believe it. Is this really happening? My legs were already wrapped prior to competing because I’d been dealing with shin splints and ankle pain, but this was different.”
“When I set up to take my second vault, I heard the words Bela was saying to me, the words they spoofed on “Saturday Night Live”: “You can do it. You can do it.” But I didn’t focus on them. After all those years of training and coaching and hard work, that’s all he could say? No advice on technique? Just “You can do it.” Looking back, I believe he knew I needed to be on automatic pilot. I knew what to do. I could do it. He didn’t want me to think. He wanted me to just do it. Today, his words make sense.”
Strug is a grown woman now. A wife. A mother. An adult who, in hindsight, seems to reflect positively on that day, but if you look closely, there’s a story, a sign of the times, within her words:
“After all those years of training and coaching and hard work, that’s all he could say? No advice on technique? Just “You can do it.””
A grown Strug even admits she was looking for advice from her coach, her mentor, at the moment she needed it the most. Advice on technique? Maybe that’s what she wanted. Advice on whether to compete or not? Putting your athlete and their physical well-being first? That’s what a coach should’ve done in that moment, medal or not.
Shrug continues, “I think people want me to say there was a special, magical moment during the vault that came next. It might be disappointing to hear, but there wasn’t. It was just a moment of thinking, “You have to do this. You’ve done it a million times. Do it again.” In that moment, all the years of doing one more vault when I was too tired or sick or didn’t want to perform another rep paid off.”
It sounds like an elite athlete repeating the words and the mindset that’s been ingrained in her by those she reveres most.
“As I started running toward the vault, my ankle felt displaced and unstable. I remember thinking I was going to trip and fall on my face. I don’t remember the vault itself, but when I landed, I didn’t think I’d done anything special. I was supposed to land the vault. Anything else would have been unacceptable.”
Anything else would have been unacceptable.
Yes, Strug was motivated, determined, and “pushing through” like we all have in our own lives. It’s not uncommon and certainly not a bad trait to have as an athlete competing at the top level of her sport, but would it have been “unacceptable” to her? Or to those depending on her?
Unacceptable by definition is “not satisfactory or allowable” – a definition rooted in outside opinion and influence.
Even Strug’s dad told her he was proud of her, which isn’t necessarily wrong – from his perspective, he just watched his daughter persevere and win Olympic gold – but was there a better way to go about it?
Strug ends the retelling by saying, “That vault changed me and changed my life for the better.”
Seeing as it is Strug’s memory, her story, and her actions, her feelings are valid and should not be discredited, but does that mean the circumstances that resulted in the vault were ok? No. Does it mean it should happen over and over again or that type of culture should be fostered? No.
The impact of a historic moment doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive from the need for change. We can acknowledge the past while making way for a better future.
That path to a brighter future for the sport has been under construction for a while now, most recently highlighted by Biles bowing out of the 2020 Olympic team final and, in the process, rejecting the idea of risking her body and self for material gains and “glory.”
Gymnasts and other athletes were suffering through injuries long before Kerri Strug did it, and they still do it to this day. The sobering question is, “Who are they doing it for?”
Are they doing it for their coach, who has trained them to accept nothing less than perfection? Who isn’t putting their own body on the line?
Are they doing it for their parents, who they want to make proud, especially after they sacrificed for their success?
Are they doing it for fans and viewers, who they’ll never know personally but could still look down upon them for failing?
Or are they doing it for themselves? Because despite being trained to put their health first and reminded it’s their choice, they want to take advantage of the moment?
If Kerri Strug was going for gold in this day and age, I like to think she would’ve had the right coaching and been empowered to make her decision like Biles did – on her own terms.
Maybe she still would’ve gone for it, or maybe she would’ve walked away. We can’t change the past, but we can create a world where gymnasts are respected first and celebrated for their accomplishments second (or third or fourth).
Just look at the Greatest Of All Time: Biles chose herself, and when we’re looking back on that vault, 26 years on, the results will fade to the background.