(L-R) Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, Jaycie Phelps, Shannon Miller, Kerri Strug, Amy Chow and Amanda Borden pose for a picture at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Gymnastics on July 9, 2016 in San Jose, Calif.
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Kerri Strug first envisioned what it would be like to win an Olympic gold medal as a 6-year-old, when she watched Mary Lou Retton in pure elation as she secured the 1984 women’s all-around gymnastics title on home soil in Los Angeles.
“I watched her medal ceremony and I said, ‘I want to do that too,’” Strug said. “She made it look fun and easy, and that truly was the moment I decided I want to be like her, I want to go to the Olympics.”
Eight years later she achieved that dream in Barcelona, Spain, and four years after that in Atlanta she followed Retton again in winning a historic gold medal, also on home soil.
While Retton’s Olympic all-around title, the first for an American gymnast, was the iconic moment for U.S. gymnastics in the 1980s, Strug’s gutsy vault that led to the United States’ first team gymnastics title at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games remains the iconic moment in U.S. gymnastics history.
That was evident by the cheers of the crowd Saturday night when Strug and her 1996 teammates were among more than 130 former athletes in USA Gymnastics’ parade of Olympians at the SAP Center in San Jose, California.
“People remember exactly what they were doing, where they were at when it took place,” said Shannon Miller, the U.S. star coming into the ’96 Games.
The moment that sticks in most fans’ minds went something like this.
With Team USA narrowly holding off Russia and one rotation remaining, the Americans just needed to hit their vaults and they’d win. Then penultimate gymnast Dominique Moceanu fell on both of her attempts, and then Strug, the team’s best vaulter, fell on her first attempt, too, in the process tearing ligaments in her left ankle.
But believing she needed to raise her score to secure the team gold medal, Strug sucked it up and moments later raced down the runway to perform her second vault. Sticking the landing with all of her weight on her right foot, she saluted the judges before hopping three times and then collapsing onto the mat in pain.
Soon after, when the final scores were announced and Team USA indeed had won, her coach Bela Karolyi carried the 4-foot-8 Strug to the podium. Amongst six gymnasts wearing matching USA tracksuits and white shoes, all with gold medals hanging around their necks, Strug stood shoeless with her legs bare, a giant wrap climbing up her left leg.
It was the moment Strug had dreamed of since 1984, though not exactly how she envisioned it happening.
“I thought I was going to look like Mary Lou,” Strug said. “Instead I’m crying and no pants on.”
A Moment In History
The parade of Olympians ceremony, which took place during an off night between the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for women, marked the first time Strug, Miller, Moceanu, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes and Jaycie Phelps were all together since 2008.
“For the seven of us to be in the same place at the same time, it’s almost overwhelming because it doesn’t happen very often,” Phelps said.
During a weekend when the Olympic champion U.S. women will be naming a squad that will be heavy favorites to repeat as champions in Rio de Janeiro, much of the talk Saturday was about how the 1996 Games compare to today.
Most evident are the differences.
The 1996 team, since nicknamed the “Magnificent Seven,” competed on an older generation of apparatuses and under the old 10-point scoring system, and ’96 was also the unique Olympic gymnastics competition to use seven-person teams — teams were six gymnasts otherwise from 1956 to 2008, and are now down to five.
And whereas this year’s Olympic team is preparing for a team final in which three gymnasts compete on an event and all three scores count, the 1996 team sent up six gymnasts on each event and could drop the lowest score.
The 1996 competition was also the last to include compulsories, where everybody had to complete a predetermined set of skills. The compulsory scores were added to those from the traditional, or optional, competition to determine the final standings.
“Compulsories are so, so different,” Moceanu said, “and people forget because they’ve been gone for 20 years, but they were a test of the best of the best, and I think some girls may struggle with compulsories if we added them in today because they’re very, very hard.”
Five years before the current national team system was set up, in which the top U.S. gymnasts train together each month at a national team training camp, the Magnificent Seven also came together in Atlanta as a team of rivals. The group ranged from five being 18 or 19 years old to the 14-year-old Moceanu, and most were from different gyms.
“It was the first time all of us had competed on the same team,” Moceanu said.
Everything came together in Atlanta, though. Despite trailing Russia after the compulsory round, Team USA came back to win during the optional competition — marking only the second time since the 1948 Olympic Games that a Soviet or former Soviet nation failed to win the women’s team title. Although, in retrospect, Strug’s iconic vault proved to be gravy for Team USA, as the team still would have won had she not taken it.
Legacy Still Felt
In a summer when women’s soccer and softball joined the Olympic Games — and Team USA won gold in both — the ’96 women’s gymnastics title added to what the New York Times described as “the year women took over the Olympics.”
Standing atop the podium at the Georgia Dome, the moment felt enormous, but the gymnasts didn’t yet realize how much their performance would resonate around the country.
“It was only later that we even recognized what we did,” said Miller, who also won the gold medal on balance beam after winning five medals in 1992 in Barcelona. “It was huge and so chaotic, and you almost don’t believe it until (the medal is) hanging around your neck. You really don’t believe it for another few years, maybe a decade afterward.”
For Strug, whose vault thrust her from a role player to the face of the team, the moment left her with “contrasting emotions.”
“You don’t envision your Olympic experience getting hurt per se,” she said. “And so it was exciting that we won the gold, but also I had a lot of personal goals and as a gymnast at the time.”
In fact, one of her most vivid memories, she said, was when trainers tried to cut off her vault shoes to tend to her injured ankle.
“I was hoping to compete in the individual event finals and all-around finals — they were my lucky vault shoes,” she said. “So I was arguing with them. I’m like, ‘You can’t cut them off!’”
Strug didn’t end up competing again in Atlanta, so with that famous vault her gymnastics career was over, though Chow, Dawes and Miller all went on to win individual medals in Atlanta. After the requisite post-Olympics tours and talk show appearances and cameos and White House visits, the Magnificent Seven gymnasts began returning to their separate lives.
Chow and Dawes went on to compete in the Sydney Games in 2000, where they initially finished fourth but were later upgraded to third after the Chinese team was disqualified for using a gymnast under the age limit. The others drifted apart to attend college or start new careers.
Today, the Magnificent Seven gymnasts are women in their mid- to late-30s, all of them married, and six of them mothers. They’re spread around every corner of the country, from California to Florida to Ohio to Washington, D.C. Most are still actively involved in the sport, whether through coaching or broadcasting or both, with Strug, who works for the U.S. Department of Justice in Arizona, and Chow, a pediatrician in California, having strayed furthest from the sport in their post-Olympic careers.
When they reunite, usually in smaller groups, the gymnasts are able to look back at what they accomplished with pride. After breaking that Russian stranglehold on the team gold medal, the U.S. women’s program has established itself first as a powerhouse and now as the powerhouse.
“I think our team did something that was inspiring for generations to come,” Moceanu said.
It took 16 years before Team USA won another Olympic team gold medal, which it did in 2012, but the team is now on a run in which it hasn’t lost a major team championship since 2011 while a U.S. woman has won the last three Olympic all-around titles. The U.S. team and superstar Simone Biles are heavily favored to continue those streaks this summer in Rio.
Just as significant, though, was the Magnificent Seven’s impact outside elite gymnastics. The ’96 champions still get letters today from fans who were inspired by their performance, and they watched with pride as young girls took their example as a starting point to physical fitness.
So if in some ways their accomplishment lives in history, seven women now connected by an event distant in their past, the pride still goes beyond the gold medals they won.
“I think all of us in some way, whether you’re a journalist or an Olympic athlete or a parent, you want to have a lasting impression on people,” Strug said. “You want to make a difference in some way, and we clearly did because of what we accomplished.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.