Eyewitness to History: On the floor for Strug’s landing

American Kerri Strug (middle) is helped after her final vault after hurting herself during the last routine in the team competition at the Georgia Dome. (AJC Staff Photo/Rich Addicks)
Caption
American Kerri Strug (middle) is helped after her final vault after hurting herself during the last routine in the team competition at the Georgia Dome. (AJC Staff Photo/Rich Addicks)

Credit: RICH ADDICKS

Credit: RICH ADDICKS

On the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution presents a series of retrospectives produced by the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute. The Eyewitness to History interviews offer the view of someone who was at a top moment on the Summer Games.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games provided the perfect home atmosphere for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, which faced tough competition from Russia and Romania.

In the end, 18-year-old Kerri Strug landed a second vault on an injured ankle to secure the Americans’ first-ever women’s team gold medal.

Strug’s coach, Bela Karolyi, then carried her onto the podium in an iconic U.S. Olympic moment.

Mary Lee Tracy, a 1996 Olympic team assistant coach and a personal coach to team members Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps, was on the floor throughout the competition.

“My role with the team was I was going to be the one that would be on the floor doing all of the spotting, mat moving, board setting, that type of thing,” Tracy said. “And I was a motivator and inspirer. I think mostly what we needed was calmness because the whole Georgia Dome was a very overwhelming feeling. ... It felt like the roof shaking.

“I don’t think we had so much like a home-court advantage, by judges or anything like that. The advantage that we had was the energy of the crowd just pulling so hard for each routine.

“Right before (Strug) had gone, Dominique Moceanu had fallen on her vault. And so, at that moment down on the floor, we had no idea that we were ahead. I mean, we knew it was close. By that point, we had pretty much taken the lead, but we didn’t know that.

“I just kept checking the board, checking the board, making sure it was on Kerri’s setting, making sure it was right. And just looking at Kerri and just giving her the confidence, nodding my head, ‘You can do it.’ What Bela did, I have to say, was pretty good to just say, ‘You can do it.’ She had done that vault 50 million times and was very, very good at that vault. She just needed to believe that she could do it. That’s the sense that the crowd, the coaching staff, everybody gave to her was that she could do it.

“You were just holding your breath, saying, ‘Stay on your feet’ because that’s all we thought she needed to do was just stay on her feet, which she did.

“I feel like the team almost carried her down the runway physically. She could feel them the closest, the girls, because they were right down there in the venue. She could see their faces, and they’re standing together, holding on to each other. And, you know, team energy, team power does a lot of miraculous things.

“When she took off for the second vault, her run looked pretty normal, normal speed, normal pace. And when she hit the table, that vault looked almost exactly like the first vault.

“All I remember is her saying ‘Ow’ and grabbing her leg and hopping off. She didn’t say anything except ‘Ow.’ She wasn’t the type of personality that went, you know, like, ‘I did it. I got it.’ That was not her personality.

“At that moment, the trainer came out on the floor because obviously, she knew even after the first vault that something wasn’t great.”

“They iced her, taped her, like immediately, because at that point everybody had kind of known that we had won, and (we) did not want her to miss out on that opportunity (to be on the podium).”

“(Karolyi) had an infectious smile and energy. He came by after they taped her up and picked her up, scooped her up, just like you saw her. When we were announced, he just proudly stood up and walked her out there. He was a huge part of the inspiration of this team.

“Seeing those girls standing up there and getting those medals and the flag going up and the anthem being played, like I can see it as if it was yesterday.

“It was so much more like this ‘USA feeling’ than it was gymnastics or anything else. It was just, you know, ‘Oh my gosh, we just did something for the entire country.’

“Every year, (Tracy, Borden and Phelps) wish each other happy anniversary of the gold medal. A lot of times we’ll trade videos of different routines that they did in the event. And sometimes somebody will post something on Facebook, and then that stimulates me to go back and watch it. If you ever really need some inspiration to keep going or to find some energy and enthusiasm, watching that’ll do it.”

-Augusta Stone and Trevor Terry completed this interview as students at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.