August 05, 1996 12:00 PM

FOR YEARS, KERRI STRUG LABORED in the special kind of obscurity reserved for talented performers not seen as stars. She was the teammate, a reliable member of the supporting cast backing such media-endorsed Olympic headliners as Kim Zmeskal four years ago in Barcelona and, this year, tiny, 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu. “You’ll never see Kerri on a Wheaties box,” Bela Karolyi, coach of all three, told the Houston Chronicle last month. Adds 1984 gold medalist Mary Lou Retton, herself a Wheaties cover girl: “She has always been the bridesmaid, never the bride.”

All that changed on July 23 in a few breathtaking moments that will be featured in Olympic highlight films for years to come. With U.S. women gymnasts clinging to a precarious lead over Russia in the finals of the team competition, Strug, 18, going last in the vault, heard a snap in her left ankle when she landed. As 32,000 spectators gasped, she hobbled to the sidelines, then, clenching her teeth against the pain, charged down the runway for a second vault. With the ankle already swelling and her leg numb, she scored 9.712, landing almost perfectly while taking most of the weight on her right foot. For a moment she raised her arms in victory. Then she crumpled to the mat, her face twisted, her eyes brimming with tears.

“I knew if I didn’t make it, we wouldn’t win the gold,” said Strug, daughter of a Tucson heart surgeon and a homemaker, who plans to continue in her sport at UCLA this fall. “So I said a quick prayer and asked God to help me out. I don’t know how I did the vault, but I knew I had to do it.”

As it turned out, the U.S. would have won anyway, but Strug couldn’t have known that. Her injury, a third-degree lateral sprain, forced her to withdraw from the individual all-around competition later in the week, but she held out hope of recovering in time to try for a medal in an apparatus event. Regardless, it would be almost impossible to top her performance. “When she nailed that second vault, I had tears of overwhelming joy because it was such a courageous thing to do,” says Retton. “It was one of the most heroic acts in the Olympics I’ve ever seen.”

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