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Fond Memories of Atlanta Remain

The top stars of the 1996 Olympic Games -- including Kerri Strug and Michael Johnson -- find rewarding careers.

July 16, 2006|Charles Odum | The Associated Press

ATLANTA — Kerri Strug was the courageous gymnast with the golden vault. Michael Johnson was the record-breaking sprinter with the golden shoes.

Ten years ago, they were among the most celebrated U.S. athletes of the Atlanta Olympics, their glory captured on magazine covers, Wheaties boxes and newscasts.

"Often times it seems like another life," Strug said. "At the same time it seems like only yesterday."

Much can change in a decade.

Strug now works for the Department of Justice in Washington. Johnson is opening a world-class training center near Dallas, designed for kids just learning to compete and professionals seeking an edge.

Each has moved on, but it's a different lifestyle than the routine of an elite Olympic athlete. Strug says she realizes she never again will experience the individual glory she enjoyed in 1996 in Atlanta.

"Like it or not, and I like it, that's the highlight of my life," Strug said of her dramatic role in helping the U.S. beat Russia for the gold medal in the team gymnastics competition in Atlanta.

Strug's final vault assured the win, but only after she fell on her first attempt, injuring her ankle. The drama rose as she limped back for her final try.

Strug stuck the landing, despite having two torn ligaments in her ankle. Then, after raising her arms in victory as fans in the Georgia Dome cheered, the 4-foot-8 Strug collapsed to the floor and was carried away by her coach, Bela Karolyi.

For Strug, then 18, it was a difficult highlight to follow.

"I'm not going to be in another situation where the world is watching me and I'm going to do something extraordinary," she said.

Strug also won a bronze medal in the 1992 Games, when at 14 she was the U.S. team's youngest member.

Following the Atlanta Olympics, she was featured on the covers of People and Time magazines. She visited President Clinton with her teammates, and she made the TV talk-show circuit.

Then it was time to plan the rest of her life.

She says the last 10 years have been spent "trying to prove to myself and others I can do other things."

Strug began the transition by competing as a professional gymnast for two years before enrolling at UCLA.

"I'm not going to say I didn't have a lot of hard times in college wondering 'What now?' " she said. "That's why I transferred from UCLA to Stanford. I wanted to put all my focus on my education."

Strug worked in San Francisco as an elementary school teacher before moving to Washington. Last year, she joined the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention staff. Through that office, she speaks to youth groups, helps arrange mentorships and does other work targeting at-risk youth.

The vault from teaching to the Justice Department surprised even Strug.

"It's important to serve something larger than myself," she said. "For so long I was focused on myself. I think everybody here is passionate about making a difference and helping as many children as we can."

Johnson's time in the spotlight covered the full decade of the 1990s. He was at the top of his sport in 1990 and 1991, but food poisoning limited him to one gold medal in 1992 on the 400-meter relay team.

Johnson plans to open a new training center next spring near Dallas, where he was born, for kids, adults and professional athletes in track, baseball, football and other sports.

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