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Kerri Strug's message worth gold

July 30, 1998

By BOB PARASILITI

Staff Writer

WILLIAMSPORT - Kerri Strug, whose vault despite an injured ankle carried the U.S. women's gymnastic team to a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics, has a message for young gymnasts.

"I want them to know I didn't get here because I was just lucky and it wasn't because of anything I was taught," Strug said.

"I want them to hear my story and know that getting to this level takes a lot of work. I tell them 'Don't be normal. Be extraordinary. It doesn't matter what you do. Do it to your fullest,'" she said.

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Strug, 20, has been traveling around the country, promoting gymnastics. On Thursday she carried her message to the 4-Star Athletic Complex in Williamsport.

"It's important to me to give back to gymnastics," said Strug. "I've been doing a lot of gym camps this summer. I know the impression that Mary Lou Retton made on me. I want to be able to make the same impression."

The class of nearly 100 aspiring gymnasts listened as Strug offered technical advice and provided personal information.

"She took the red-eye to get here," said Nica Sutch, 4-Star's gymnastics coordinator. "She left California at 10 p.m. last night and we picked her up at Dulles at 5 a.m. this morning. She has to be tired."

Strug assured her place in Olympics history when, after ripping ligaments in her left ankle during her first vault in the team competition, she shook off the pain and nailed her second vault. Her score of 9.712 was enough to give the U.S. women their first ever team gold medal in gymnastics.

At the end of the competition, coach Bela Karolyi carried Strug to the medals podium.

Her injury kept Strug out of the individual events.

"The whole Olympics didn't come out the way I anticipated," Strug said. "I wanted to go and win more medals. But if what happened to me has made an impact on gymnastics, that's fine."

To some, Strug's decision to ignore the pain of her injured ankle and to make that second vault captured the Olympic spirit.

"People have told me what I did was bring back what the Olympics are all about," she said. "Since 1992, pro athletes have been getting into the Olympics. I've been told that what I did was something special because I did it for my country instead of for myself."

The incident made Strug a celebrity. ESPN used the "carrying Kerri" theme in one of its SportsCenter commercials. It was the subject of a comedy bit on "Saturday Night Live." Strug has made guest appearances on the television shows "Touched By An Angel" and "Clueless."

"It's been cute," Strug said. "... They've poked some fun at all this. It's all right, life's too short. It's allowed me to get an identity to get the word out."

Strug, a Tucson, Ariz., native, lives in California and soon will move to the San Francisco area to attend Stanford.

She travels weekly to camps to spread the word on gymnastics and occasionally trains to compete in professional events. She will do some television work as a gymnastics analyst.

"I've been in gymnastics since I've been 3, but didn't get serious about it until I was 12," she said. "I had been training twice a day since then.

"Now it's time to close the chapter on my first 20 years of life and focus on something for the next 20 years. I'm just experiencing some social things I've never seen before."

During her visit to Williamsport, Strug had some advice for young gymnasts, including Amanda Renner.

"To hear things from her means more," said Renner, 14, of Gerrardstown, W.Va. "She taught me about keeping my arms straight when I tumble. Since she told me, I think I will always remember that."

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