Updated: May 30
Standing just 4’8” tall, Kerri Strug was a little gymnastics dynamo from Arizona who won a team bronze medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics at the age of 14. Going into the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the team competition had been dominated by the Russians for decades and had never been won by the United States. The U.S. women, known as the “Magnificent Seven”, held a 0.897-point lead over the Russian team. It was possible for the Russians to take the gold if the U.S. women floundered. While the first four American gymnasts landed their vaults, they took some steps which led to a deduction of points.
Compounding the problem, Strug’s teammate Dominique Moceanu fell twice, earning a low score. Strug, who was the last to vault for the United States, under-rotated the landing of her first attempt, prompting her to fall and damage her ankle. She needed to land a second vault on her feet in order to mathematically clinch the gold for the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team. Limping to the end of the runway, Strug landed the vault briefly on both feet, favoring her good foot in several hops before she collapsed onto her knees and her coach, Béla Károlyi , carried her off the platform. Sportscaster John Tesh said, "Kerri Strug is hurt! She is hurt badly." She earned a score of 9.712 out of 10 on her vault, guaranteeing the Americans the gold medal. Because of her willingness to compete through pain, she was victorious and won the hearts of millions. (Excerpt from 2024 book release)
I have to admit; I was moved to tears watching Kerri Strug's Olympic feat. Her courage, bravery, and laser focus to finish and show up despite her pain were truly remarkable. However, as time passed, I began to question why I was more inspired by her performance than outraged at Coach Béla Károlyi who failed to protect her. It's important to recognize that coaches are not infallible and can make mistakes. In this case, Coach Károlyi made a decision that put Kerri Strug's health and well-being at risk.
You see, Kerri had been programmed from a young age to be a warrior athlete. The only way she wouldn't have moved forward with the vault was if someone had stepped in and said, "Kerri, you do not have to put yourself in harm's way or endure any more pain to ensure our team's victory. Your bravery and dedication to the sport make you a hero regardless of the outcome. Today, our gold medal will be won by taking care of our team member, which is you."
As impressive as Kerri's heroic performance was, we need to examine the toxic messages that it sends and the potential impact it can have on young athletes. By pushing through the injury, she indirectly sent a message that an athlete's pain is not as important as their ability to finish. This message can be harmful to young athletes who may feel pressured to push through unhealthy pain to achieve their goals. Mind you, did she really have a choice? She was only 14.
Believe me, I know firsthand that ignoring pain and pushing through acute discomfort can sometimes lead to long-term health problems, including multi-surgeries. Thirty years after my athletic career ended, my body still reminds me. To be fair, we can also acknowledge that coaches and athletes act out of a genuine desire to help their team succeed.
While we can all appreciate Kerri Strug's remarkable performance, it is crucial to prioritize the long-term health and well-being of our young athletes. We need to encourage them to take care of themselves and remind them that winning should never come at the expense of their physical or mental health. Coaches also need to be held accountable for ensuring the safety and well-being of their athletes, even if it means sacrificing a medal or win.
By prioritizing their long-term health and well-being, athletes can learn the importance of self-care, self-awareness, and self-compassion. They learn to listen to their bodies, rest when they need to, and seek help when necessary. This mindset can also help them develop resilience and mental toughness, as they learn to overcome obstacles in a healthy and sustainable way. When coaches prioritize their athletes' long-term health, they create a culture of safety, trust, and respect that can positively impact the athlete's mental health and overall development. By teaching athletes to prioritize their long-term health, coaches are not only helping them succeed in sports but also in life.