In 1996, Kerri Strug's dramatic turn in the final rotation of the team competition made her the poster child of the Atlanta Games, and won her universal admiration.
The gymnast once known for her poise in practice but an inability to deliver in competitions turned out to be the team's ticket to the top of the podium at those Olympics.
Competing on an ankle she had injured during her first vault, Strug clinched gold for the Magnificent Seven in the team event -- the U.S.'s first gold in that event in Olympic history -- by sticking her second vault when it counted most. The performance made her one of the most celebrated athletes of those Games.
Aside from Strug's petite frame and composure, today you may not recognize the 34-year-old. She now resides in her hometown of Tucson, Ariz., with her husband, Robert Fischer, and their first child, Tyler, born March 1, 2012. Sixteen years after her dramatic star turn in Atlanta, Strug's latest challenge -- motherhood -- is top of mind.
"It's different how your perspective changes once you have a kid," she said. "Everybody tells you it's going to happen, but until you have one, you don't get it."
The career-oriented Strug hopes to return to her post at the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington after her maternity leave. But her husband, an attorney, has accepted a prosecutor position in Tucson. The couple will see if their roots take hold in Arizona.
Inspired by Mary Lou Retton's dramatic all-around victory at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, 6-year-old Strug dreamed of becoming a gymnast. Because Retton trained with legendary Romanian coach Bela Karolyi, who had also helped Nadia Comaneci rise to the top as the first Olympic gymnast to score a 10.0, Strug turned to him.
Strug was just a kid when she tried to convince her family to move to Houston, so she could train with Karolyi. One month shy of her 13th birthday, she left home for a Texas training camp. "I choose Bela as my coach because he pushed me past my point of comfort each and every day," she said. "When you do that on a normal basis, you're able to perform under various circumstances, and that's what I needed."
Looking back, Strug knows that her parents' decision to let her go it alone benefited the entire family. "[Gymnastics] was my thing, and they were there to support me, but they weren't pushing me," she said. "I didn't have all that added pressure of making everybody pick up their lives and change everything."
Strug was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in Barcelona. At 14 -- an age which would render her ineligible for senior-level competition under today's rules -- she helped the U.S. win bronze in the team event, but failed to qualify for the individual all-around.
Four years later, a single gutsy effort turned Strug into a household name overnight. After Strug badly sprained her ankle on her first vault, the U.S.'s gold-medal chances were in doubt. But Strug nailed her second vault and clinched the victory for the Americans before collapsing on the floor in pain. Minutes later, in one of the iconic images of the Atlanta Games, Karolyi had to carry his injured pupil out to the medal podium so she could receive her gold medal.
"I never thought that I'd have that Olympic moment," she said. "You always dream of going to the Olympics and winning gold. I've learned over the years that there are lots of gold medals, but certain stories stick out and make a difference."
A new beginning
Strug's retirement from gymnastics in 1996 did not quell her competitive spirit. An 18-year-old with a lot of living to do, she enrolled at UCLA that fall, started running with girlfriends and soon discovered that she had the endurance chops of a marathoner. She has since finished five 26.2-mile races, the most recent one in New York in 2008. "I'm kind of biased toward sports. I enjoy them and would like Tyler to get into them," she said. "I think sports are extremely beneficial for our youth. They parallel life in so many ways."
After nearly a decade of strict training, rigid house rules and time away from those she loved most, Strug is now enjoying a more relaxed life, one focused on her family.
"I've learned to take a step back," she said. "I have a 3-month-old son who's on his own schedule, and he's going to do his own thing. Even if I have 10 things I want to accomplish in a day, it's not really up to me anymore."
And should Tyler become an elite athlete, Strug wonders whether she would be strong enough to make the same sacrifices her parents did. "I don't know at this point if I'd be willing to let him move away from home," she admitted. "But at the same time, if your child has a passion, you have to support that. You do what you think is best for them whether you really like it or not."
She also hasn't given up on gymnastics, the focus of her entire adolescence. "Things have changed now that [gymnasts] can focus on one or two events, and also since there's just the optional routine, but it's definitely a young woman's sport," she said. "As you get older, it's harder to maintain your weight and to fly through the air for those routines. It's also the lifestyle; you train seven to eight hours a day, five to six days a week." Strug stays connected to the sport she loves by doing PR for USA Gymnastics, booking speaking engagements and attending the Games on behalf of sponsors, as she will this summer as part of the Hilton HHonors Program.
The London 2012 team of five will be chosen on Sunday, the last day of the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif., and Strug will be watching closely. "Once gymnastics is in your blood," she said, "it's always there."
New York City-based Rachel Cooperman is a regular contributor to espnW.