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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Americans Led by Strug, the Girl Who Doesn't

Gymnastics: Backup to Miller, Moceanu helps team to second place behind Russians after compulsories.

July 22, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The incredible travels of Kerri Strug reached their wildest destination yet Sunday--from Barcelona to Orlando to Oklahoma City to Tucson to Colorado Springs to Houston to, of all places, out of the shadow of Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu.

On this American women's gymnastics team, Strug is known primarily as the Girl Who Doesn't. Doesn't have an agent. Doesn't have an autobiography. Doesn't have a Kodak commercial. Doesn't have much of an international reputation except for wincing while she works and changing coaches as often as she unwraps birthday presents.

All that changed Sunday in the compulsory phase of the Olympic women's gymnastics competition. With the 1-2 punch of Miller and Moceanu fresh off the disabled list--bad wrist here, stress fracture there--and a nerve-racked Jaycie Phelps nearly rattling kneecaps on the balance beam, the Americans needed a utility player to step up, someone to both lead off and bat cleanup, so to speak, with a potential gold medal at stake.

So the 4-foot-9 Strug led off the balance beam and the uneven bars for the United States and anchored the floor exercise and vault, producing the Americans' two highest scores of the day and leaving them a close second behind Russia heading into Tuesday's optional finals.

Strug's scores of 9.825 in floor exercise and 9.812 on the vault steadied a sometimes-wobbly squad that seemed to want no part of the balance beam at all--Phelps fell off it completely--but rallied in the vault and uneven bars for an overall score of 193.669.

Russia (193.796) leads the United States by only .127, followed by Romania (193.138) in third place, Ukraine (192.308) in fourth and China (191.933) a disappointing fifth.

In the process, the U.S. women successfully answered the most prominent questions dogging them on their way to Atlanta. Roughly, in descending order of hysteria and/or idle curiosity:

1. Is Moceanu's leg OK?

The shin, tightly wrapped with a flesh-colored bandage, passed muster through the compulsories, with Moceanu recording the fifth-highest individual score (38.824) of the meet. She bunny-hopped her landings off the bars, beam and vault, and her coach, Bela Karolyi, conceded that "We told her not to go all out on her takeoffs and landings."

Tuesday's optionals will be more demanding--higher jumps, heavier pounding--but as a precaution, Karolyi promised Moceanu she could "take it easy" in Monday's workout.

2. How's Miller's wrist?

Early indications are that it should be sound enough to clutch some sort of medal this week. Miller had the second-highest score of the day--39.061, behind only defending world champion Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine (39.149)--and a 9.737 balance-beam routine that her coach swore was at least two points too low.

"Shannon was flawless on the beam," Steve Nunno exclaimed. "There was not a wobble in that routine. If that's a 9.737, I'd like to see what the deductions were. I thought it was a 9.9--it should have been a 10. What was wrong with it?"

3. Do Nunno and Karolyi hate each other?

They run rival camps and coach the two biggest stars in the country, but after Miller nailed a 9.775 uneven bars routine, Nunno sprinted straight at Bela and bear-hugged him.

"Something came over me," Nunno tried to explain afterward. "I started getting that Karolyi hug fever. Bela kind of looks like a huggable thing, anyway. I felt like Jim Valvano, just looking for somebody to hug."

4. Who is Kerri Strug and why does she never smile?

Maybe she's too tired from packing.

Since the 1992 Olympics, when she finished 14th in the overall competition, Strug has changed coaches and training sites four times--leaving Karolyi's Gymnastics in Houston for Browns' Gymnastics in Orlando, Fla., then joining Nunno's Dynamo Gymnastics in Oklahoma City, then moving back home and training with local coaches in Tucson, then re-upping with Karolyi last December.

"Kerri's traveling adventures," is how Karolyi describes her last four years. "She was trying to find a place where there was peace."

She was also trying to find a place in the spotlight, so difficult when so much of it is blotted out by Miller and Moceanu. Strug is a 1992 Olympic bronze medalist, placed seventh in the 1995 World Championships and won the 1996 American Cup, yet her name recognition among U.S. team members flags a distant fourth behind Miller, Moceanu and Dominique Dawes.

"I guess I'm more of a steady personality. I'm not as bubbly as some of the others," Strug suggested. "And I don't have an agent. Which is something everyone seems to have."

Strug also has a game face that could wilt roses at 20 paces. All business out there, no fun allowed--that's the message her stun-ray glare sends out. Judges who like smiling cherubs have noticed. Advertisers too. Both have not assisted the Kerri Strug promotional campaign.

"I'm pretty hard on myself," Strug said. "I'm pretty much a perfectionist. I'm more serious than most. . . .

"I've definitely worked on it. I think I've added more personality and style to my floor exercise. Before, I used to just worry about my tumbling and not present myself."

Now, ex-coach Nunno has noticed, Strug "smiles more out there. On the floor exercise today, she did a nice job of 'showing' the performance. It looks like she's more confident and comfortable now."

At these Olympics, she's anchoring a star-studded U.S. team, hitting the Americans' first and last routines of the compulsories, and is a major reason the U.S. women are within striking range of their first international team gold medal.

"Kerri is now a mature performer at this level," Karolyi said. "Before, the pressure would get to her. She would grow smaller under the pressure.

"Today, she performed like an international gymnast. She is out of the shadow now."

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