KERRI STRUG … OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL, U.S. WOMEN’S GYMNASTICS TEAM, 1996 … OLYMPIC BRONZE MEDAL, U.S. WOMEN’S GYMNASTICS TEAM, 1992 There has never been a great athlete who died not knowing what pain is. BILL BRADLE Y, former NBA player and U.S. senator 64 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME My sister was training for gymnastics with Bela Karolyi. When I was five years old I went to visit her. I guess I had the body and the attitude, and this caught his eye. His attention and encouragement led to my taking lessons for two hours a day, five days a week with the University of Arizona coach. The sessions were one-on-one and they were short but intense. I finally hooked up with Bela himself when I was thirteen. Up until that time, it was all fun for me, but when I joined Bela it became much more like a job. The best way to describe it was enjoyable, but intense. HER FIRST COMPETITION It was just a small competition in my own gym, but I was so nervous. I wanted to do well so badly and so I performed badly. It wasn’t exactly a disaster, but I didn’t even do as well as I did in workouts. This became a pattern for me.
I would make small mistakes and Bela would become very frustrated with me. This pattern lasted until the 1996 Olympics. What made it worse is that all my teammates would perform better in meets than in practice and for me it seemed to be the opposite. I knew I was working as hard as my teammatesmaybe harderand yet I just was not winning. I was good, but rarely did I come in first. It wasn’t until my last year, when I thought that I had nothing to lose, that I started focusing on me instead of everyone else. I had to look closely at what I could control and what I couldn’t. In the past, I had been worried about how good my teammates, like Dominique Moceanu and Shannon Miller, did. But that all changed, and just in time for the Olympics. MIND-SETMY BEST IS GOOD ENOUGH Gymnastics was every important to me, but it wasn’t everything, and that’s because my parents would not allow it to be that way. Unlike most of my teammates, my parents never pushed me to keep going. They were more interested in my going to school. I didn’t need gymnastics to win KERRI STRUG 65 my parents’ love. They loved me whether I won or not. The pressure came from me and only me. It all came together for me when I saw the finish line at the 1996 Olympics. I knew that win or lose, I was done competing as a gymnast after that. In a sense, that relaxed me. Looking back, I think I wanted to win so badly that I was afraid to lose and as a result, I didn’t do well.
After that, I began to win a lot, mainly because I came to realize that I could only control my own performance, and not other gymnasts.’ THE VAULT: 1996 I hit my first vault but landed short and jammed my left ankle (afterward, doctors told me I had torn two ligaments). I felt tremendous pain but I had no second thoughts about doing two vaults. I had thirty seconds between vaults. I looked at Bela, lined it up, and did it. At the time, we all thought the team needed that vault to get the gold. In the end, I could have skipped the second vault and still have gotten the gold, but that’s not the point. Bela made me always do twice as much as I thought I needed to do at practice. My feeling always was, Hey, I hit twenty perfect vaults, now let me go home, but he wouldn’t let me. In the end, I was so used to this kind of thinking that I was on automatic pilot. Bela was a tough coach and he knew I was in pain, but this was the Olympics. I knew that if I didn’t do the second vault I would have questioned myself the rest of my life. And so I did it and as I did I wasn’t thinking about the pain, I was only thinking about nailing it. WHAT I KNOW Before Atlanta, I thought that with hard work and belief in yourself, you could do whatever you want and do it well. After the vault, these beliefs became a reality because I proved them to myself.
If you work hard, things may not turn out exactly the way you envision them, but they will turn out well. Now, unlike my days in gymnastics, I’ve come to enjoy the journey to my goals at least as much if not more than reaching the goals themselves. Before learning these lessons, I simply didn’t have the balance one needs in life. Then it was all about sports, and so often I didn’t enjoy 66 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME life because I was so fixated on making it to first place. Fortunately, that’s not the way it is for me today. NOW I went back to get my master’s from Stanford and then I worked at the Treasury Department. Now I’m with Juvenile Justice. I like what I’m doing, but I still haven’t found that second passion. I’ll do all I can to find it. Whatever happens, you can count on one thing: Kerri Strug will give all she has to become a success.
I love that we won the gold in the Olympics, but I have to be known for more than just being a world-class athlete; I have to be more than onedimensional. And that’s what drives me today. MY WRAP Kerri’s story is a perfect example of how a person can make life harder than it has to be. Strug’s moment came when she decided to stop trying to control everyone else’s performance and let her own performance speak for itself. So many have said that when you have fun you stop caring about winning and then, guess what, you start winning. Kerri always worked hard, and once she removed the pressure she put on herself she became one of the most celebrated athletes in U.S. Olympic history. KERRI STRUG
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