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Olympic champion takes to Pa. gymnasts

September 22, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Six-year-old Kerri Strug found herself mesmerized by Mary Lou Retton's triumphs in the 1984 Summer Olympics, but it was during face-to-face training in the gym that Strug most felt the Olympian's influence.

"It had a profound effect on me," Strug said Saturday, 12 years after her own gold medal performance at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

All the while remembering the importance of her personal time with Retton, Strug spends her summer months visiting young gymnasts across the country. On Saturday, she served as a special guest coach at Rainbow Gymnastics on West Main Street.

"A lot of times, the people you see on TV, you don't really identify with," Strug said.

Most of the 70 children and teenagers enrolled in the clinic were too young to remember when Strug carried the hopes of a nation on her tiny frame and bum ankle for one final vault at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. But to the amusement of their new hero, many had found the defining moment on YouTube.

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Kiersten Pollard, 10, of Waynesboro, admitted that she can be negative and hard on herself when challenged with a stunt.

Yet, she felt that Strug served as an inspiration to look at problems differently.

"Now, I think I'm going to do better and just go for it," she said.

Strug, who today runs marathons for charities and her own fitness, said that one famous vault finally shattered her reputation for not pushing through when it mattered.

"The vault has a lot of personal significance for me," she said, saying she also feels it demonstrated men aren't the only ones who can persevere.

"I wish I had enough courage to do that," Kiersten said. "I'd be in a lot of pain."

"When we see her (vault) on there, it gives us a lot of inspiration and power," said Kaydee Lesher, 8, of Hagerstown.

The older participants in the clinic not only soaked up the inspiration, but also the pointers and recommendations provided by Strug.

"When she was coaching, she gave really good tips," said Janelle Jerwick, 15, of Smithsburg.

Strug's iconic coach, Bela Karolyi, passionately insisted at the recent Summer Olympics in Beijing that Chinese gymnasts appeared too young to meet new regulations mandating they be at least 16 years old sometime in the year of the competition. At age 14, Strug won a bronze medal as part of the U.S. team competing in Barcelona at the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Strug, who went to China for the 2008 Summer Games, echoed her former coach's criticisms of the age restrictions.

"I don't like it. I don't think it's right," Strug said. "I know a lot of gymnasts who hit their peak at 14."

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