She was their last hope, the 18-year-old gymnast with a pixie hair cut who wore an expression of supreme confidence as she blinked at the crowd.
Going into the vault rotation, the U.S. gymnastics team known as the Magnificent Seven held a 0.897-point lead over the Russian squad on the final day of team competition during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Kerri Strug had watched her teammates struggle to make their lands cleanly, some hopping or stepping, with Dominique Moceanu falling, before it was her turn.
Much like the weight pressing down on the shoulders of Simone Biles, the star American gymnast who withdrew from this week’s team finals in the Tokyo Olympics, citing mental health concerns, Strug knew what was at stake and “was the only one left to do it.”
Only she under-rotated the landing on her first attempt, her feet going out beneath her as she fell. The gasps heard in the arena were deafening.
Strug had seriously injured her left ankle.
“On paper, it looked a foregone conclusion,” Olympics.com said. “Strug was an established specialist on the apparatus and opted for a vault that she had landed many times in the past. But not today. Instead, she fell back upon landing, heard a crack in her ankle, and then felt a sharp pain in her left ankle.”
Her face twisted in pain as she asked her coach, Bela Karolyi, a simple question, one that would determine her mark on the sport of gymnastics:
“Do we need this?”
“Kerri, we need you to go one more time,” Karolyi said, according to ESPN, his arm wrapped around her. “We need you one more time for the gold.”
And so after limping back to the starting point, Strug flew through the air for a second time, only this time sticking the landing with both feet without stumbling before immediately lifting the injured ankle to hop, as she stared at the crowd with her arms in the air.
And then she collapsed in pain with a third-degree lateral sprain and tendon damage.
Overlooked in the dramatic roars erupting in the Georgia Dome? The fact that the Magnificent Seven would have won even without Strug’s final vault.
Biles, the Texas native who is generally considered the greatest gymnast of all time, was not on top of her game Tuesday when competing in the vault. She landed awkwardly on her first rotation and left the arena to be treated by a trainer, and later announced that she had withdrawn from the event because of mental health concerns.
“I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now. ... We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles said after withdrawing.
“We’re not just athletes, we’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back. I didn’t want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt,” she said, Reuters reported.
On Wednesday, she withdrew from Thursday’s competition and in doing so, continued to change the narrative on how mental health is viewed in sports — or at least in the world of gymnastics.
And Olympians, past and present, are stepping forward to back Biles in her moment of vulnerability.
With the emergence of social media, the topic of the mental well-being of athletes, especially those competing on the world’s stage at the Olympics, is being discussed openly — and it has people seeing Strug’s vault injury in a new light.
On Facebook, Byron Heath, a father from Idaho, touched on Biles’ decision, saying it made her “an even better example” to his daughters. He spoke of Strug’s famous landing and how his children had questions that seemingly weren’t asked when the moment happened 25 years ago.
“’Why did she jump again if she was hurt?’ One of my girls asked. I made some inane reply about the heart of a champion or Olympic spirit, but in the back of my mind a thought was festering: She shouldn’t have jumped again,” Heath said in a post.
There are also those who are comparing both decisions, Biles’ and Strug’s, in a more positive way.
Katharine Wenocur, a child therapist and former gymnast, wrote an op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer and spoke about watching the Strug moment as a child and how she wrote a school report about her bravery.
“She became an indelible role model who embodied self-sacrifice and work ethic for all. These memories represent an important part of my childhood, even as I have moved on from the sport to become a children’s mental health therapist,” Wencour said.
She went on to say that she was blown away by Biles’ own bravery in starting the mental health conversation for young children who look up to her.
“Children need role models and advocates, as the stigma surrounding mental health disorders can contribute to a sense of isolation and feelings of being different from peers. I have one question for those who question whether Biles is living up to her role-model status by (their words) quitting: Who better to model health behaviors than an Olympic hero?”
Then there are those who are comparing the Biles and Strug moments in a negative manner, too.
Over the years, Strug passionately defended her coach’s decision to push her second jump.
“Everyone always said I was the baby,” Strug told Sports Illustrated. “This was my time, and I said, I’m going to prove it. People have the wrong impression, that [gymnasts] are robots and don’t think. I was upset with people blaming Bela [for my decision to vault again].”
After Biles opened up the conversation about mental health, Moceanu, who was the youngest on that 1996 team at 14 years old, tweeted a powerful — and horrifying — video of her landing on her head while on the balance beam.
“I was 14 y/o w/ a tibial stress fracture, left alone w/ no cervical spine exam after this fall. I competed in the Olympic floor final minutes later,” Monceanu tweeted. “@Simone_Biles decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—’a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.”
Athletes have started and continued the mental health conversation before and after Biles stepped forward, including tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who made public statements about her battle with depression. Same with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who struggled with depression after the death of his brother.