Popular article revisits Kerri Strug’s famous vault with the broken ankle from the 1996 Summer Olympics

“I was thrilled to demonstrate Kerri Strug’s renowned one-leg vault to my daughters yesterday.
But for some reason, the second time I watched it, I wasn’t as moved. I actually felt a little queasy.”

The world is talking about Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the team final and subsequent withdrawal from the individual all-around finals at the Tokyo Olympics due to “twisties.” She’s received a ton of praise and a ton of criticism for the decision, with some praising her for knowing her limits and others blasting her for giving up when she was facing difficulties.

Some people cited Kerri Strug as an illustration of the type of sacrifice an athlete should be prepared to make for their nation, as she vaulted with a broken ankle during the 1996 Olympics and landed on one foot to help the U.S. win gold.

In a Facebook post that has gone viral and been shared more than 370,000 times in less than a day, Byron Heath expressed some thoughts about that crucial day.
Heath penned:

“This realization I had about Simone Biles is gonna make some people mad, but oh well.

Yesterday I was excited to show my daughters Kerri Strug’s famous one-leg vault. It was a defining Olympic moment that I watched live as a kid, and my girls watched raptly as Strug fell, and then limped back to leap again.

But for some reason I wasn’t as inspired watching it this time. In fact, I felt a little sick. Maybe being a father and teacher has made me soft, but all I could see was how Kerri Strug looked at her coach, Bela Karolyi, with pleading, terrified eyes, while he shouted back ‘You can do it!’ over and over again.

My daughters didn’t cheer when Strug landed her second vault. Instead, they frowned in concern as she collapsed in agony and frantic tears.

‘Why did she jump again if she was hurt?’ one of my girls asked. I made some inane reply about the heart of a champion or Olympic spirit, but in the back of my mind, a thought was festering: She shouldn’t have jumped again.

The more the thought echoed, the stronger my realization became. Coach Karolyi should have gotten his visibly injured athlete medical help immediately! Now that I have two young daughters in gymnastics, I expect their safety to be the coach’s number one priority. Instead, Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. And he got what he wanted; a gold medal that was more important to him than his athlete’s health. I’m sure people will say, ‘Kerri Strug was a competitor–she WANTED to push through the injury.’ That’s probably true. But since the last Olympics we’ve also learned these athletes were put into positions where they could be systematically abused both emotionally and physically, all while being inundated with ‘win at all costs’ messaging. A teenager under those conditions should have been protected, and told ‘No medal is worth the risk of permanent injury.’ In fact, we now know that Strug’s vault wasn’t even necessary to clinch the gold; the U.S. already had an insurmountable lead.

Nevertheless, Bela Karolyi told her to vault again according to his own recounting of their conversation:

‘I can’t feel my leg,’ Strug told Karolyi.

‘We got to go one more time,’ Karolyi said. ‘Shake it out.’

‘Do I have to do this again?’ Strug asked. ‘Can you, can you?’ Karolyi wanted to know.

‘I don’t know yet,’ said Strug. ‘I will do it. I will, I will.’

The injury forced Strug’s retirement at 18 years old. Dominique Moceanu, a generational talent, also retired from injuries shortly after. They were top gymnasts who were literally pushed to the breaking point, and then put out to pasture. Coach Karolyi and Larry Nassar (the serial sexual abuser) continued their long careers, while the athletes were treated as disposable resources.

Today Simone Biles–the greatest gymnast of all time–chose to step back from the competition, citing concerns for mental and physical health. I’ve already seen comments and posts about how Biles ‘failed her country’, ‘quit on us’, or ‘can’t be the greatest if she can’t handle the pressure.’ Those statements are no different than Coach Karolyi telling an injured teen with wide, frightened eyes: ‘We got to go one more time. Shake it out.’

The subtext here is: ‘Our gold medal is more important than your well-being.’

Our athletes shouldn’t have to destroy themselves to meet our standards. If giving empathetic, authentic support to our Olympians means we’ll earn fewer gold medals, I’m happy to make that trade.

Here’s the message I hope we can send to Simone Biles: You are an outstanding athlete, a true role model, and a powerful woman. Nothing will change that. Please don’t sacrifice your emotional or physical well-being for our entertainment or national pride. We are proud of you for being brave enough to compete, and proud of you for having the wisdom to know when to step back. Your choice makes you an even better example to our daughters than you were before. WE’RE STILL ROOTING FOR YOU!”

Many people agreed with Heath’s viewpoint, and many of them thanked him in their comments for putting their feelings into words.

We are in a new era where our perspective on what is noble, powerful, and just has changed. We now know more about the long-term effects of frequent concussions. After significant hits, we have trainers and doctors checking on football players. We’re getting better at striking a balance between competition and well-being. We recognize the significance of both physical and mental health.

We are also more aware of the effects of trauma on young bodies, both physically and mentally. Although Kerri Strug’s decision to push through the discomfort is revered in sports as an iconic moment, the adults in the room ought to have shielded her instead of making her push through a clear injury.

And by today’s standards, the way this 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu’s fall was handled is downright shocking. Even after the competition was over, she claimed she never received an exam for it. So incorrect

The desire to win a competition shouldn’t take precedence over someone’s well-being because athletes are not mere cogs in a machine. Elite gymnasts already subject themselves to taxing physical and mental challenges; otherwise, they wouldn’t be at the top of their game. However, there are boundaries, and far too frequently, in our pursuit of a gold medal—or even a happy Olympic tale—we push athletes too far.

Now that we know what we do, it is definitely a good thing that some of them are pushing back.