Kerri Strug's heroic final vault capped the end of the Olympic
reign of the formerly invincible Russian women's team in Tuesday
night's gymnastics final. The U.S. women, America's darlings of
the 1996 Olympics, defeated world power Russia for the USA's
first team gold medal in Olympic history.
A crowd of 32,048 gave the Americans a standing ovation.
The Soviet Union had won every Olympic team gold medal since 1952, except for the boycotted 1984 Games (Romania won the gold). In 1992, the Unified Team, a team from the former Soviet Union, also won the gold - its 10th in Olympic history.
Strug, the final competitor of the night for the USA, injured her left ankle on her first vault. Though she had the option of skipping her second attempt, Strug bravely ran the down the runway, throwing herself into the air and landing on her injured ankle to score a 9.712. She took a few hops, raised her leg a few inches saluted the judges, then fell to her knees in agony.
Fifteen minutes later, her coach, Bela Karolyi, carried her to the awards stand to receive her gold medal. Afterward, Strug was taken to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a third-degree lateral sprain.
"I knew she would not say no," Karolyi said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation."
Martha Karolyi, Bela's wife and the U.S. head coach, said she knew Strug was injured after the first vault.
"I'm extremely proud of her," she said. "I saw her leg was hurting but because of extreme team spirit, she definitely wanted to do the vault."
The final scoreboard read USA 389.225, Russia 388.404. Victory was less than a point, 0.821. World champion Romania was third with a 388.246 score.
"The U.S. is truly worthy of its first place," said Russian coach Leonid Arkaev. "We go to make the proper analysis and tomorrow we begin preparations for the Australian Olympics (in 2000)."
The USA, which entered Tuesday night's competition in second place behind Russia, began on its weakest events, the uneven bars and balance beam. The performances there were virtually error-free, putting the Americans closer to the gold. At the same time the U.S. women were earning scores in the 9.7-9.8 range, Russia had falls off the balance beam and on the floor.
The top 36 women overall, three per country, advance to Thursday night's all-around competition. Shannon Miller was second overall to Ukraine's Lilia Podkopayeva. Dominique Dawes was sixth and Strug seventh. Dominique Moceanu, the 14-year-old star from Houston, was 11th and probably will replace Strug.
The gold-medal performance was especially sweet for Miller, winner of five Olympic medals in Barcelona - but none of them
"I'm so excited, I can't even say," said Miller, 19, from Edmond, Okla. "After four years of hard work, it's exciting it paid off."
U.S. women's Olympic teams won bronze medals in the 1948 and '92 Olympics and a silver medal in the boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Three of the team members, Strug, Miller and Dawes, were making their second appearance in the Games.
"I know it's going to be really hard taking this medal off," said Dawes, 19, from Silver Spring, Md. "I might be showering and
sleeping in it."