#1 - THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
Women's Team Final, Gymnastics, Atlanta 1996
posted April 14, 2009
In a way it's kind of anticlimactic that my #1 Olympic Moment involves seven competitors who won a gold medal they were favored by many to win. They had the home country and crowd advantages, and they were the strongest and deepest women's gymnastics team the US had ever produced. The mighty Soviet Union had been broken up, and though Russia still had tradition and legendary head coach Leonid Archaev, the country no longer provided virtually unlimited resources to their athletes. So the Russians were considered vulnerable. The other major women's gymnastics power, Romania, had several of the world's best at the top of their roster, but didn't have the depth of the US team. In addition, just before the start of the Atlanta Games one of their athletes broke an ankle, and obviously was unable to compete. Instead of having some flexibility like the other teams, Romania would have to use all six of their remaining gymnasts on all four events. Thus, Romania was also considered vulnerable at these Olympics.
So all the signs pointed toward the strong possibility of an American team gymnastics gold medal for the first time in Olympic history. Why, then, should this be my favorite Olympic moment?
Oh, there are so many reasons!
One of the things that made the victory of the 'Magnificent Seven' (as the team came to be known) so special is that there are so many wonderful moments within the Moment. To begin with, let's look at each member of the Seven individually, in alphabetical order.
AMANDA BORDEN - Amanda just missed making the 1992 Barcelona team. She had continued training for another four years to get a second chance at going to the Olympics. At age nineteen, it would almost certainly be her last chance. The hard work paid off. At the 1996 Olympic trials, by the last rotation of day two Amanda knew that if she just hit her floor exercise routine with no major mistakes, she would be safely on the team. She went out and did a very good routine, with just a couple of small steps on the ends of tumbling passes. As she finished, she knew her dream had at last come true, and I have never seen a happier looking human being in my life than Amanda Borden was at that moment. Tears were in my eyes as well as hers as she ran into the arms of her coach, Mary Lee Tracy. And to top it all off, when the finalized team had their first meeting after the trials, they elected Amanda as Team Captain. I have sometimes wondered if Amanda might have quit gymnastics after the 1992 Olympics if she had made that team. If so, perhaps that failure was meant to be, because it resulted in an eventual triumph that was much sweeter.
AMY CHOW - An accomplished pianist as well as an elite gymnast, Amy was known for the unusually difficult moves she worked into her routines, such as a double twist on her vault and uneven bars dismount, and triple twists during floor exercise tumbling passes. At that time such moves were not used by many gymnasts, so they made Amy distinctive enough that she was nicknamed, 'The Trickster.' She pulled off a much more difficult and serious 'trick' at the Olympic trials, however. During a backwards tumbling series on her last event, balance beam, her foot slipped and she fell off the beam in the middle of a back flip. In the process, the side of her face smacked into the beam on the way down with all the momentum from the flip. After a fall, the athlete has 30 seconds to remount the beam. If she finished the routine she could absorb the .50 penalty for falling and still have enough points to make the team, but if she didn't finish she would receive a score of 0.0, and her Olympic dream would be gone. She appeared stunned for a few seconds, but then she somehow pulled herself back onto the beam and continued, actually performing the rest of the routine pretty well. There was a visible lump below her eye by the time she was done, and the coaches quickly got her an ice bag, of course. In the end it was her toughness when it mattered most as well as her skill that earned Amy Chow a place on the 1996 Olympic team.
DOMINIQUE DAWES - In an 'Enberg Moment' during the NBC broadcasts of the 1996 Atlanta Games, Dick Enberg stated that Dominique earned the nickname 'Awesome Dawesome' as a result of her sweep of the medals (all-around and all four event finals) at the 1994 Nationals. While that was truly her nickname, it actually dated back to at least to 1991, since she was referred to by it during the broadcast of the 1991 Nationals, which I have on tape. At that time, Dominique was still primarily a floor exercise specialist (she tied for the National floor title that year with Kim Zmeskal), with her other three events not yet at a sufficient level to be competitive even Nationally much less Internationally. By the next year, however, she had brought up her skills enough to qualify in fifth position at the Olympic trials, earning her a trip to Barcelona, where she helped the US team win the bronze medal. After another year of hard work, she came within one excellent vault of being the 1993 World All-around champion. It was the first time she had ever experienced that kind of pressure, and she reacted by sitting down the vault and finishing fourth. She was already crying by the time she got back to her feet, but as she came off the podium, her coach, Kelly Hill, would have none of it. She gently but firmly reminded Dominique that neither of them had come into the meet thinking she would come anywhere close to the all-around title, and that she should be proud of what she had accomplished. Hill also insisted that she smile and wave to the spectators who were applauding her, and though tears were still in her eyes, she did. Perhaps that sweep of the medals at Nationals the next year, and everything else that came after, would never have happened if Kelly Hill had allowed Dominique to dwell on her failure in that one event instead of immediately putting it into its proper perspective, helping her to move on from it. In any case, in 1996 Dominique Dawes was still one of the best all-around gymnasts in the world, and had high hopes for both her team and herself going into the Atlanta Games.
SHANNON MILLER - The unexpected star of the 1992 Games for America, when Kim Zmeskal faltered on three of the four days due to injuries, Shannon also came into 1996 with high hopes. Unfortunately, by the time of the Olympic trials she also had a bad wrist that prevented her from competing, and she had to use the petitioning process, asking that her scores from Nationals be used as her qualifying scores for the Olympics. The petition was granted, of course, since Shannon was still the USA's best gymnast, and one of the best in the world. She was the most decorated American gymnast ever in terms of number of World and Olympic medals, but she lacked the ultimate prize in her sport: Olympic Gold. That was her goal, for both her team and herself, and she knew Atlanta might well be her last chance to achieve it. There was little doubt in anyone's mind that Shannon Miller would be mentally ready for the competition. The question was whether the injured wrist would hold up for her.
DOMINIQUE MOCEANU - At fourteen years old, Dominique was the 'baby' of the 1996 team, and also its most popular member. With her extreme charisma and bubbly personality, she was comfortable in the spotlight and naturally lovable. She was also a true gymnastics prodigy. The year before she had become, at age thirteen, the youngest gymnast ever to win the USA's National all-around title. She came into 1996 expected to help her team win gold, and considered to have a chance at individual medals as well (she had taken the silver on balance beam at the 1995 World Championships). Strangely, she seemed to suffer from nerves at the 1996 Nationals, where she finished third, having numerous problems with her landings. The next week, the true reason for her problems was discovered: a four inch stress fracture in her left leg. Suddenly her Olympic dreams were in jeopardy. She had only six weeks to heal, and would lose much valuable training even if the leg was ready by then. Like Shannon Miller, she successfully petitioned onto the Olympic team based on her scores from Nationals. She continued to work out to the limited extent she was able, and underwent daily therapy to try to aid the healing of the stress fracture. The week before the Games she was pronounced able to compete, but everyone, probably including Dominique herself, wondered how well she would be able to do under such adverse circumstances.
JAYCIE PHELPS - Jaycie was a classic case of peaking at the right time. She was a good gymnast in 1995, and was still good in 1997, but only in 1996 was she at the top of her game. With less pure talent than the likes of Shannon Miller and the two Dominiques, Jaycie needed to be at her absolute peak to be good enough for an Olympic team. To the luck of being born in 1980, making her sixteen in 1996, she added lots of hard work, and thus was ready when the time came. Like Amanda Borden, Jaycie also trained with coach Mary Lee Tracy, and she and Amanda became almost like sisters as they worked together to help each other be the best they could be. It was thus fitting that they both made the team. Unlike the other team members, Jaycie didn't especially excel on any particular events. Instead, she brought unspectacular but solid ability to all four, which would be needed in the race for team gold in Atlanta.
KERRI STRUG - Kerri had been the 'baby' of the 1992 team. She just missed a chance to compete in the all-around final in Barcelona, when Kim Zmeskal came from behind to claim the third qualifying spot. So her individual goal for the following four years had been to make the all-around final in Atlanta. It turned out to be a tumultuous four years. She changed coaches several times, and at a meet in 1994 had a horrifying fall off of the uneven bars, suffering a very painful back injury that threatened to end her gymnastics career. With patience and hard work she was able to successfully rehab from that injury, and by 1996 was back training with legendary coach Bela Karolyi, as she had done up to the time of the Barcelona Games. In 1991 and 1992, Kerri had been overshadowed in the Karolyi gym by Kim Zmeskal. After the 1992 Olympics she had moved to Oklahoma to train with Shannon Miller at coach Steve Nunno's gym, where naturally she was in Shannon's shadow for the months that she was there before changing coaches again. Now, in 1996, she was overshadowed by young Dominique Moceanu, who also trained with Bela. Kerri had to be wondering by then if she would ever stand in the spotlight herself. Knowing it could only happen by excelling at the Olympics, she continued to work hard, and was performing as well as she ever had by the time the Atlanta Games began.
So the members of the Magnificent Seven all had their own fascinating stories before the Games ever began. Some had overcome obstacles to get there. Others were facing obstacles (i.e.injuries) going into the Games. On the personal level, I liked and respected all seven as people very much, and really wanted to see them succeed in their quest for gold. Could this diverse group of fascinating individuals come together for the combined team effort necessary to make their dreams come true? Could all the individual stories come together to write a happy ending for the whole team? I hoped so with all my heart. It would be so cool to see these wonderful young women standing on top of the medal stand at the Olympics.
The 1996 Games were the last to have compulsory exercises for the first round, routines that every competitor had to perform. These scores combined with the individual scores from the team final to determine who qualified for the all-around and event finals. Compulsories were usually fairly difficult, the elements often composed by former top level gymnasts. In this round the Russians, Romanians and Chinese were all deemed to have a good chance to beat the USA's scores, since compulsories were generally emphasized a bit more in those countries' programs.
For the 1996 Games, in both the compulsory and optional rounds, six of each team's seven athletes would compete in each event, and the top five scores would be counted toward the team total.
The Americans began their session of compulsories on uneven bars, and got off to a great start. All the girls performed very well, and most of them stuck the dismount landing, not giving anything away at the end. They had momentum going into the second rotation, balance beam. There the momentum immediately began to stall.
Kerri Strug went first, and scored a mediocre 9.35. Amanda Borden followed with a 9.312. Neither girl made a major mistake, but both had several small and medium bobbles and breaks. The routine was a difficult one, and the judges were being tough in their scoring. Dominique Dawes rallied a bit with a score of 9.425, still not good but at least an improvement. However, Jaycie Phelps then fell off the beam during her routine, ending up with a 9.012. This meant that both Kerri's and Amanda's scores would be counted. The good momentum of the first rotation was now completely gone, and bad momentum seemed to be taking its place.
Great athletes come through at the crucial moments. This was definitely a crucial moment in the quest of the US team to win gold, and fortunately they had a great athlete to step up and meet it: next up on balance beam was Shannon Miller.
Blocking out all the problems of her teammates, and the wrist which was still bothering her a bit, Shannon mounted the beam with confidence and proceeded to deliver not just an excellent routine, but the best of the day: her score of 9.737 was the highest posted by any competitor on beam in the entire compulsory round. Thanks to Shannon's heroic effort, the bad momentum had been halted; but there was still one more competitor left: Dominique Moceanu. If Dominique faltered like the first four, the rotation would still feel like a failure. How would the youngest member of the team, with her barely recovered leg and reduced training, respond? Like the champion she was. Dominique showed all the poise and confidence of a seasoned Olympic veteran as she put up a score of 9.687, which would end up as the third best score of the day.
The two high scores from Shannon and Dominique not only made the rotation successful in terms of total points, but the combination of those two excellent routines restored the good momentum that had begun during the bars rotation. The team went over to floor exercise feeling positive and confident again. The home crowd also felt the momentum, and the cheers that had hushed during the early part of the beam rotation were now back stronger than ever.
In team gymnastics competition, the ideal is to build scores throughout each rotation, with each competitor's score being higher than the one before. The Americans had come close to that in their excellent first rotation on bars, but obviously it hadn't worked out at all on beam. On floor exercise, however, with the positive momentum coming out of beam and the home crowd cheering them on, they fulfilled the ideal perfectly. Jaycie began the rotation with a solid 9.662, and each subsequent competitor's score was higher. The last to go, Kerri Strug, did an exceptionally powerful and expressive version of the routine, and was rewarded with the very high score of 9.825. The momentum was now flowing powerfully through both athletes and crowd, and the girls repeated their score-building on the last rotation, vault. Kerri Strug again anchored the rotation, and for a second time delivered a very high score to cap it off, this time 9.812.
The Americans were flying high as the compulsories ended. I was flying with them. I had followed their high-low-high cycle at the edge of my seat, and like the crowd at the Georgia Dome experienced the whole range of emotions. At the end I felt exhilarated, and couldn't wait for the team final two days later.
There was one more compulsory session after the one the Americans competed in. The Russians were in this last one, and they did what no other team was able to do that day: they outscored the Americans. Going into the final, Russia was in first place with a point total of 193.798. The USA was second with 193.669, just .129 behind the Russians. It was a reminder that the American girls still had their work cut out for them, no matter how much momentum they had or how loud the crowd cheered for them. So it was that I began watching the team final with optimism, but also knowing that anything could easily happen.
The Americans again started the session on bars, and again put up excellent scores, propelling them into the lead after one rotation. Next, however, was balance beam, the one apparatus that had caused them problems on compulsory day. It was one thing for the team to have problems with a difficult compulsory beam routine that was also taking its toll on many other competitors; to have similar problems on beam during optionals, when everyone is doing routines they have designed specifically to utilize their own special skills, would likely be fatal to their chances of winning gold. Nothing helps to avoid such problems more than for the lead off athlete to hit a solid routine, especially when the team already has momentum going into the rotation. For the crucial lead off spot on this crucial rotation, the American coaches had this time selected team Captain Amanda Borden.
From the day of her election, Amanda had taken her job as team Captain seriously. The girls all lived together in a house prior to and during the games, and Amanda helped the coaches make sure everything was organized and everybody was ready when they needed to be. She also tried her best to keep the team's morale up, maintaining a very positive attitude and encouraging the others through both word and example to do the same.
Amanda Borden, like her gym partner Jaycie Phelps, didn't have the pure talent of a Shannon Miller or either Dominique, so it was inevitable that she wasn't going to contribute as much to the team's success during the competition as the other girls could. In fact, she competed only on floor exercise and balance beam at the Olympics, with Amy Chow taking the sixth spot on bars and vault. So there was a limit to how much she could pitch in with her gymnastics. However, the lead off slot on balance beam for the team final was a chance for Amanda to make one huge contribution that could truly help the team bring home the gold. This one routine, if she could really hit it, would be the pinnacle moment of her career. I really liked Amanda as a person, and was totally but nervously rooting for her to come through, both for herself and the team.
Amanda stepped up to the podium looking confident, with the kind of air a team Captain should have with so much on the line. She mounted the beam perfectly, and began performing the elements of her routine. She looked completely focused as she nailed one skill after another, without the slightest hint of a balance check. She was doing exactly what she wanted and needed to do, hitting the routine of her life at the most important moment possible. Finally she tumbled down the beam and launched into the air for her dismount. A slight sliding of her right foot on the landing was the only visible imperfection in the entire routine. I was on my feet cheering in delight as she walked off the podium with her radiant smile glowing for all the world to see. She had gotten the team off to the good start they needed. Her score was 9.725, which seemed a bit low, but it was a very good score to start the rotation, and just the fact that she hit the routine so solidly set the tone for the rest of the girls who would follow. Thanks to Amanda Borden, there would be no bad momentum that day.
This turned out to be that much more important when Jaycie Phelps, going next, had a couple of bobbles during her routine and a stumble on her dismount, scoring only 9.600. Thanks to Amanda's solid start, however, there was no sense of panic this time. Kerri Strug followed Jaycie and immediately got things back on track with a 9.737. Dominique Dawes then put up another 9.725, a bit lower than what was hoped for, but still a decent score.
Then it was Shannon Miller's turn. Unlike compulsory day, the good momentum from bars hadn't vanished, just slowed down slightly. This time a great routine from Shannon would send the momentum sky high. She came through just as powerfully as before, again hitting the high balance beam score of the day with a phenomenal routine that got a 9.862. Dominique Moceanu then sent the momentum into the stratosphere with her own great routine, posting a 9.850. The Americans were soaring toward the gold: they had completed the one potentially problematic apparatus in very good shape, and were now headed to their strongest event, floor exercise. If they put up the scores there that they were capable of, they would be in very strong position to take the gold.
I could feel my heart pumping with excitement as Jaycie came out to open the rotation. She hit a solid routine and scored 9.750. The next three girls built on that, with Amanda getting a 9.762, Dominique Moceanu bringing down the house with her crowd pleasing exercise that earned a 9.837, and Dominique Dawes performing superbly to snare a 9.850.
Then Shannon Miller took the floor, and for the first time in the competition had a problem: on her opening tumbling pass she came up way short on the last landing, stumbling and almost touching the floor with her hand. She did well the rest of the way, but that big mistake brought a big deduction, and after a long judges' conference, apparently about just how big the mistake was, she received a score of 9.618.
The momentum was suddenly threatening to stall out again. It was up to Kerri Strug, again anchoring floor, to crank it back up. For the third time, Kerri hit a great routine to end a rotation, and got a 9.837. The loud cheers of the crowd returned, and my own adrenaline flow was also restored.
For the last rotation the Americans would be on vault, normally the lowest scoring rotation, with the Russians on floor, normally the highest scoring. That was the slight bad news. The good news was that after their generally great floor rotation, the Americans had built a lead of just under 9/10 of a point. This big lead meant that they were in complete control of the outcome, needing only to post five good scores. If they did that, the gold would be theirs regardless of what the Russians did. Even four good scores and one fair one would very likely be enough. It was just a question of avoiding major disaster, and the way the team was going disaster just didn't seem possible. Still, I was taking nothing for granted. I'd watched enough sporting events in my life to know that even the most seemingly impossible things can happen. I couldn't relax until the points that secured the gold were officially scored.
Jaycie Phelps was again pegged to lead off the rotation. At that time in the team finals, each athlete did two vaults and kept the best score of the two. Jaycie's first vault scored a 9.637, not a bad score but not a real good one. With that decent score accomplished, she tried harder on the second vault, and improved to a 9.662. It was a good start, since the other vaulters to follow were all capable of scoring above 9.700.
Next up was Amy Chow. She began with a relatively easy vault for her, a safe vault to make sure she put a good score up for the team. She got 9.650. That was good enough for her to go for her signature vault on her second attempt, the one which included two full twists. It wasn't perfectly executed, but the judges took the extreme difficulty into account, and rewarded Amy with a 9.712.
The girls weren't setting the world on fire, but they were putting up scores good enough to hold off the Russians. The next vaulter was Shannon Miller, who scored a 9.700 on her first vault. Her second wasn't quite as good, so the 9.700 was taken. Shannon was followed by Dominique Dawes, an exceptionally powerful vaulter capable of putting up big numbers. The better of Dominique's two vaults scored 9.762.
As each of these vaults was completed, and as each score went up, I inched further and further forward in my seat, pumping my fists and cheering each time. Now I stood up: with four solid scores already in the books, one more good vault would clinch the gold. A few seconds later, lead NBC gymnastics commentator John Tesh announced that if the next vaulter, Dominique Moceanu, scored a 9.743, the gold would be theirs no matter what the Russians did. As a practical matter, this meant she needed a 9.750, which was doable for Dominique if she hit one of her vaults really well. I think I must have unconsciously held my breath as Dom ran down the runway, hit the board, and spun through the air - and then I let out an explosive "OH!" as she came up so short on the vault that as soon as her feet hit the landing mat, she fell to a sitting position.
As Dom walked back down to the starting place, expert commentator Elfi Schlegel gave the opinion that she didn't think what had just happened was because of the injured leg itself, but rather because the injury had severely limited how many times Dominique could practice her vaults before the competition. Whatever the reason, I was a big Dominique Moceanu fan, so I said out loud, "It's ok, you still have one more! No problem!" Surely she would do much better on the second attempt.
She did only slightly better, getting more distance and having better form in the air, but she opened up way early again, and for a second time found herself sitting on the mat. The score was only slightly less bad, improving from 9.137 to 9.200.
The crowd at the dome and I were both watching in stunned silence as Kerri Strug stepped onto the podium. She had done superbly in the anchor position three times before, but now the whole competition seemed to have landed in her lap. By this time another Russian had finished her floor exercise, and the score to clinch was now down to 9.493, this time for practical purposes a 9.500. Since Kerri was the best vaulter in the USA, if not the world, she could get that kind of score even with a sloppy vault, as long as she landed standing up. The gold seemed to be in the bag, but after Dominique's falls I was taking even less for granted. I needed to see that winning vault happen before I started celebrating.
Sure enough, as if Dominique's problem was contagious, Kerri too came up way short and finished her vault sitting down - and unlike Dom, Kerri got up limping. She made her way back up the mat slowly, trying to walk off the pain in her ankle. She stumbled once, but kept walking. As she approached the head of the runway, she asked Bela Karolyi what the point situation was. He told her the points were close, and assured her that she was capable of doing the second vault. With the fate of her whole team possibly on the line, as long as she was capable of running down the runway nothing was going to stop Kerri Strug from taking her second vault.
When she did start down the runway, it seemed the injury couldn't be too bad, as she sprinted toward the vaulting horse with no sign of abnormality in her stride. She hit the springboard and flew into the air, pushed off the horse, spun and twisted, and landed.
Instantly her face contorted with pain, and she immediately lifted her left foot up off the mat to get the pressure off it. The most natural, most instinctive thing in the world would have been to surrender completely to the pain and drop immediately to the floor. I remember once at a football game one of the players dislocated a finger, and on the sidelines the team doctor popped it back into place. This act caused a moment of sharp pain that lasted less than a second, but instantly dropped the player to one knee. When a similar jolt of pain went through Kerri Strug as her injured foot hit the mat forcefully and was suddenly injured much more seriously, she should have reacted much the same. No one would ever have blamed her. Instead, Kerri did what may have been the most courageous thing in Olympic history. For two seconds that must have seemed interminable to her, she fought off the pain and, standing on one foot, her face still contorted and tears in her eyes, she raised her hands over her head, then with a little hop pivoted ninety degrees to her left and raised her hands again, saluting the judges - the necessary procedure at the end of any gymnastics routine to complete it and turn it over to the judges for scoring. Only then, when leaving her feet would no longer bring a deduction to her score, did she succumb to the pain and lower herself to the mat.
All of this happened very quickly, and at the time I didn't yet have the chance to think deeply about it. All I knew was that Kerri Strug had managed to land and complete the vault despite suffering a painful injury, an act that was clearly very heroic. After Kerri had been assisted off the podium and was being turned over to the on-duty medical personnel, the score for her vault flashed on the screen: 9.712. Kerri's act of heroism had ensured the USA team of the gold medal. Needless to say, the crowd and I both went rather nuts.
A couple of points about Kerri's amazing vault. First, I think it probably was the greatest act of courage in Olympic history if not sports history, simply because there was no way she could possibly have known before the moment she landed just how much it was going to hurt. She had suffered a minor injury on the first vault, but was still able to run at full speed. She had to react to and fight off that huge jolt of pain instantaneously. How she remained standing long enough to complete the vault I honestly don't know. It does occur to me that maybe the excruciating pain she had endured two years earlier in that horrible uneven bars fall was even worse, and perhaps having already experienced an even worse pain helped her endure her injured ankle for those crucial two seconds. Regardless, it is something that still totally blows my mind, and always will.
Secondly, there is the question of whether Kerri's heroic vault actually won the gold medal. It's true that the points she scored made it official, but what if she hadn't taken her second vault? After the first five Americans had vaulted, there were still two more Russians left on floor exercise. That 9.493 that John Tesh had indicated was needed to ensure the gold was based on those last two Russians both scoring perfect 10.00s on their routines. But the fact is that no competitor all week came anywhere near that score. In fact, in all of the phases of the competition - team, all-around and event final - only three competitors scored 9.850 or higher on floor: Lilia Podkopayeva of the Ukraine, Simona Amanar of Romania and Dominique Dawes of the USA. None of the Russians were quite that good on the event. Even if the last two girls had hit the routines of their life and gotten scores of 9.850, it wouldn't have been enough. Dominique Moceanu's score of 9.200 would still have provided sufficient points for the Americans to win. So, as heroic as Kerri was, it's not strictly accurate to say that her vault won the gold medal. The fact is that it would have happened anyway.
HOWEVER, that does not lessen Kerri's heroism in any way. Things were happening very quickly on the floor of the dome that night, and it wasn't possible for the coaches or athletes to make calculations like the above with the competition going on. At the time it happened, everyone, including Kerri, thought she needed to hit a good vault for the team to win. That makes what she did as heroic as if those points really had been needed. I admire her for what she did just as much as I would have in the other case. Kerri Strug should always be on the short list of the greatest ever Olympic heroes for the incredible courage and endurance she displayed in that amazing moment on that memorable evening.
There was one last brief moment of drama that night, when the medical people were about to wheel Kerri Strug out of the Georgia Dome and take her to the hospital before the medal ceremony she had waited for all her life had taken place. Kerri saw Bela Karolyi, her coach, as she was being rolled toward the door, and cried out his name loudly until he heard and came over. Bela stopped the medics, then lifted Kerri off the stretcher and carried her out for the medal ceremony. A picture of Bela Karolyi carrying a waving Kerri Strug in his arms ran in most of the newspapers around the world the next day, and the moment that those pictures captured is probably the single most enduring image of the entire Atlanta Games. Needless to say, Kerri at last escaped the shadows of others, and finally stood in the spotlight for all the world to see.
Announcer John Tesh came in for a lot of criticism for his work during the Atlanta Games, much of which, I must admit, was deserved. NBC apparently agreed, since Tesh was replaced for the 2000 Sydney Games by veteran sportscaster Al Trautwig. However, between the completion of the distribution of the medals and the playing of the National Anthem, Tesh himself was golden. He briefly mentioned that no other US gymnastics team, men or women, had ever won a gold medal in a fully contested Games; then, with the camera on the medal stand, he summed up the moment with the simple but somehow perfect statement, "Take a look at history!" Tears came into my eyes, and I stood and applauded again these seven amazing young women who had captured not only gold medals, but the imaginations and hearts of all of us Americans who were watching that night, and who had just given me what will probably always be my favorite Summer Olympic moment.
While Kerri Strug's vault was obviously the highlight of the competition, what's really my favorite thing about this Olympic moment is how seven girls from diverse backgrounds and homes across the nation came together for one amazing team effort. This was truly a team with no Most Valuable Player. All seven shared equally in the accomplishment. When there were problems on compulsory beam, Shannon and Dominique Moceanu stepped up and not only righted the ship but steered it back on course. For optional beam, Amanda made sure there would be no bad start or negative momentum, and she also delivered solid scores on floor exercise, her only other event. When Shannon, who had the highest combined score of all the Americans in spite of her sore wrist, faltered on optional floor, there were already four good scores in the books from those who had gone before her, and Kerri immediately wiped away the memory of Shannon's one stumble. Jaycie's meet was a bit below average for her, but she made up for her problems on beam by delivering solid lead off scores on five of the eight rotations to get the team off to a good start on those events, an underrated and important contribution to the team's success. Dominique Dawes under performed on beam, but put up scores ranging from good to great on the other six rotations. Amy Chow, who only competed on bars and vault, put up good numbers on vault and excellent scores on bars, making her limited participation very valuable. And, of course, when Dominique Moceanu finally fell victim to her limited training on optional vault after delivering great routines in the first seven rotations to help put the Americans on the edge of victory, Kerri again was there to make sure that victory didn't slip away. It was the ultimate team effort, with dramatic moments and emotional ups and downs all along the way. It was extremely fun and exhilarating to watch, and with such an incredible ending it's hard to imagine anything ever happening in the Olympics to top it. I may eventually have to redo this list to add other moments, but I don't anticipate ever changing moment #1.
Thank you, Magnificent Seven, for that wonderful climb to the top of the gymnastics world in Atlanta, and to the top of this list of My Favorite Summer Olympic Moments!