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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

American Women Vault Over Russia

ATLANTA -- Kerri Strug couldn't feel her left leg, but she could hear her U.S. coaches and teammates, every one of them, as they pleaded for the gold medal.


"Come on, Kerri! You can do it!" they shouted at her as she hopped on one foot, wondering just what that loud popping noise in her left ankle meant.


"One more vault!"


Strug severely twisted her ankle on her first vault in Tuesday night's Olympic women's gymnastic team finals, but it was a poor vault, only a 9.162, and her personal coach, Bela Karolyi, barked up at her on the performance podium: "We need another! We need a 9.6!"


Short of summoning the house doctor, what was Strug to do?


She knew the deal: The U.S. women gymnasts were on the brink of their first-ever Olympic team gold medal, her teammate Dominique Moceanu, 14, had just landed both of her vault attempts on the seat of her leotard, the second-placed Russians were closing quickly and their two best gymnasts were due up next on the floor exercise mat.


The two Russians, Dina Kochetkova and Rozalia Galiyeva, would come up short with scores of 9.725 and 9.5, but Strug and the Americans couldn't afford to wait to find out.


Once Strug returned to the front of the runway, she had just 30 seconds to decide whether to vault again.


"I could feel the gold slipping away," Strug said. "I felt like I had to do it. I felt I owed it to everyone."


So Strug vaulted one more time.


The United States wound up on the top of the victory stand ... and Strug wound up in the X-ray room at nearby Crawford Long Hospital.


Strug landed her second vault with teeth clenched and eyes watering, bravely holding her feet in place long enough to appease the judges, stood on one leg, then crumbled to her knees and called for help.


Strug had stuck her vault -- landing on first bounce, without a hop or a wobble -- which earned a score of 9.712 and negated Moceanu's team-low score of 9.2. (Six gymnasts compete in each event, but only the top five scores count.)


The United States beat the Russians by .821, meaning Strug could have foregone her second vault and the Americans still would have won on the strength of Moceanu's mark.


But amid the confusion, with the clock ticking, Karolyi told Strug to give it one more try -- and Strug came through, bravely, but painfully, possibly costing her a spot in Thursday's individual all-around competition.


In order to receive her gold medal alongside the rest of her teammates, Strug had to be carried out to the victory stand -- by Karolyi, who knows a timeless Olympic moment when he sees one.


At a later press conference, Karolyi said he had no qualms about sending a gymnast with a possible leg fracture back onto the runway for one more vault.


"It was a once-in-a-lifetime situation," he reasoned. "If it was me, I would go there with a broken leg. I would do anything. This was the gold medal. I think Kerri showed the greatest sense of responsibility with what she did."


In 48 years of Olympic team gymnastics competition, the U.S. women had never won a gold medal, not even in the Soviet-boycotted Los Angeles Olympics of 1984.


That year, despite Mary Lou Retton's individual brilliance, the American team took the silver, finishing second to Romania.


Aside from that, the Soviets owned this competition, winning every team gold medal from 1952 to 1980, then again in 1988, then one more time under the Unified Team banner in 1992.


The United States won this medal with a total team score of 389.225 -- more than eight-tenths of a point better than Russia (388.404). Romania took the bronze medal with a score of 388.246.


Strug's clinching vault, the last event of the night for the Americans, left her with two torn ligaments in her left ankle.


Team physician Dr. Dan Carr described the injury as a "severe ankle sprain," technically a third-degree sprain.


Carr gave Strug only a "50-50" chance of being physically sound enough to compete in the individual all-around competition on Thursday.


"I have a lot of mixed emotions tonight," Strug said at the press conference. "It's great the USA got the gold medal. I still can't believe it. I'm really happy for that.


"At the same time, I'm a little bit upset with my physical aspect. I've waited and trained for four years to compete in the all-arounds, and now that might be taken away from me."