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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | MIKE DOWNEY

THE DAY AFTER : You Could Find Them Partying on Another Planet

July 25, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — Bruce Willis was enjoying himself, as was his wife, Demi Moore, as was everyone else packed inside Planet Hollywood just past 10 o'clock Tuesday night, including the entire gold-medal-winning U.S. women's gymnastics team, which the actors had more or less adopted since arriving here for the Olympic Games.

Well, practically the entire team.

"Unfortunately . . . ," said Willis, the party's host, standing before six of the itsy-bitsy spiralers, making the introductions, "unfortunately . . . Kerri Strug couldn't be here with us tonight . . . "

The crowd went, "Awwww."

And in walked Kerri Strug.

On crutches, she made her way to where Willis was speaking. The crowd parted and began to clap and cheer. Refusing to be counted out, for the second time in a few hours, Strug hobbled on her sprained left ankle through the restaurant.

Willis scooped her into his arms, same way her coach had.

"Kerri Strug!" Willis announced, as if he had just unsealed the envelope for best actress.

And the 90-pound gymnast just rocked there, happily, snug as a Strug in a rug.

So continued the wildest 24 hours in the life of Kerri Strug, daughter of Melanie Barron and Dr. Burt Strug, little sister of Kevin and Lisa, owner of two dogs, Sandy and Skittles, and the biggest little woman in America today.

By dawn's early light, Strug was on NBC, followed by CBS.

Her foot hurt, so they came to her.

At 3 p.m., a CNN talk show brought her parents, brother and best friend into an Atlanta studio, with a satellite feed to Strug at the college sorority house where she's staying.

"Kerri's not with us, right at this moment," CNN's Susan Rook began the show, similarly to the way Bruce Willis had. "In fact, she's on the phone with President Clinton."

A few minutes later, Kerri appeared.

"What's it like, talking to the President?" she was asked.

"I don't know," Kerri answered. "I've never talked to a President before."

From the moment she landed--hopping on one foot, wobbly as a flamingo--at Tuesday's gymnastics competition, the UCLA student-to-be's life has been turned topsy-turvy.

First, she sat on the mat. They carted her off on a stretcher. They set her down again to put a splint on her ankle. They bundled her up and carried her like a baby to the victory stand. She stood--unsteadily--for the anthem. Then, she was cradled in her coach's arms again and loaded into an ambulance. They did everything to Kerri Strug but send her overnight by Federal Express.

Next, something strange happened.

They threw a party and didn't invite her.

Strug--often thought of as U.S. gymnastics' forgotten woman--got forgotten again. Her personal coach, Bela Karolyi, oh so valiant when the TV cameras were on, a regular Romanian Sir Walter Raleigh, didn't go along in the ambulance.

Nor did anyone from the United States Gymnastics Federation, also known as USGF.

Nor did the team's coach, Martha Karolyi, also known as Mrs. Bela.

Nor did a single teammate.

On the night she had been there for them, they weren't there for her.

The only ones who accompanied Strug to the hospital were her parents, U.S. team doctor Dan Carr and one representative from the U.S. Olympic Committee's press office, Bob Condron.

That's it.

No one else came. No one else called.

X-rays taken at Crawford Long Hospital revealed a third-degree, lateral sprain of the left ankle. Burt Strug, a heart surgeon, consulted with the doctors. Melanie Barron Strug sat holding her daughter's gold medal in a plain brown box. As soon as Kerri limped into the waiting room, she asked for her medal.

The other six gymnasts were at Planet Hollywood, having a wonderful time. None of them had told Strug where they would be.

Condron, meantime, communicated to the Strugs that their daughter was in big demand. Few had had a chance to ask about her heroic effort. The U.S. might or might not have been victorious, had Strug skipped her painful second vault. But by that same token, Americans wouldn't know Kerri Strug today from Carrie Fisher, had she not given that encore.

Back to the Georgia Dome they went.

Under the impression that the whole team would be waiting there, giving interviews, the Strugs were startled to discover that Kerri was the only U.S. gymnast there.

A bashful person, once called by Bela Karolyi "a scared bird" who broke into tears at the drop of a hat, Kerri did as requested. She spoke of her mixed emotions, happy about winning, unhappy at the thought of withdrawing from further competition because of the injury. She was embarrassed at being carried like a baby in front of millions people.

Her parents weren't embarrassed a bit.

"She wanted to do it for the team, the country and herself," Melanie Strug said.

"She showed what courage is all about," Burt Strug added. "She put the team before herself. She's a true competitor and a team player. She's my daughter and I'm really proud of her. She's a national hero."

Some thought the coaches shouldn't have risked it. Kerri Strug, however, is no child. She doesn't want to be treated like one. She's 18, will be 19 in November. She could have children. But opinions flew as though Strug could have been broken, like a doll. She isn't some doll. She's an athlete.

As the interviews wound down, Condron got a call on his cellular phone. The gymnasts were at Planet Hollywood, having a ball.

"Kerri?" he asked. "They're having a party."

"They are?" Strug asked.

"Do you want to go?"

"Sure!" she said.

Into the phone, Condron said: "I'll bring Kerri."

Everybody's getting ready to leave, he was told.

"Keep them there," Condron said. "I don't care if you have to lie in front of their car. Keep them there."

Into a plain Buick piled the Strug family. They raced across town.

Fifteen minutes later, Kerri limped into the party.

"How's it feel?" Willis asked.

Her foot hurt. Her feelings were hurt.

"Great," she said.

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