The names Kerri Strug and Béla Károlyi are popping up in conversations about Simone Biles and her withdrawal from the USA women’s gymnastics team Olympic team after an uncharacteristically weak vault during the finals first rotation. The parent of two young girls training in gymnastics, Bryon Heath has written a post that went viral and writes a story that seems tragic if true.
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.
Heath further writes:
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 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 a disposable resource.
What he misses here is that gymnastics is both a team and individual sport and gymnastics and its culture isn’t limited to the women’s competitions. What he misses is the legacy of Shin Fujimoto.
What really happened:
Kerri Strug became famous for doing a vault while injured during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The second vault ended with her hopping and unable to leave the mat. Her coach at the time, Károlyi, carried her off and then carried her the podium. The coach and team could not have known at the time, that her vault was unnecessary because of the Russian competitor on floor went after Strug’s vault. Strug suffered tendon damage and a third degree lateral sprain. This is nothing compared to other injuries that gymnast’s have suffered.
Strug was also able to join the 1996 World Gold exhibition tour. In the video, you can see that she is being spotted by Károlyi.
What Heath writes about Moceanu is also incorrect. Moceanu was the youngest member of the team the press dubbed the “Magnificent Seven.” She did not compete in the Olympic Trials because of a right tibia stress fracture. At the Olympics, she took Strug’s place in the all-around and did not medal. Moceanu and Strug had less medals and wins than their teammates Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes. Yet it was that courageous vault that has etched Strug into the memories of many.
What isn’t clear is that Bela Károlyi retired from coaching after the 1996 Olympics. For this reason Moceanu had to find other coaches. She placed 9th at the US Nationals in 1997. She was at the World’s but did not medal. She competed in the 1998 Goodwill Games and won the all-around. She qualified for the Olympic Trials, but withdrew due to a knee injury. She did not qualify for the 2006 Nationals.
While it is easy to blame Károlyi, it is important to remember that Bela Károlyi was born in 1942 in Romania. He was an old-school coach from a Communist country. At the time of the 1996 Olympics, he was 54 and he retired. If you want to consider retirement as pushing out the gymnasts he had trained out to pasture, then maybe you can suggest another retirement plan. Károlyi did not, as Heath portrays, continue a long career and while Moceanu has claimed that the Károlyis were abusive, she also petitioned and was granted emancipation from her father, Dumitru (1954-2008) in 1998. Her parents were both former gymnasts from Romania. It was her father who contacted Károlyi, first when she was three (Károlyi refused), and again when she was nine. The father moved the family to Houston where the Károlyis had their gymnastics camp.
Gymnasts and Injuries
There have been gymnasts who returned from more disastrous injuries such as Tim Daggett and, currently competing in the Tokyo Olympics, French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd. In Rio 2016, Saïd suffered a double compound fracture in his left leg landing his vault. Daggett broke his tibia and fibula and severed one of his arteries landing his vault at the 1987 world championships. He attempted to compete for the 1988 Seoul Olympics but did not make the team. He currently provides gymnastics commentary for NBC for the Tokyo Olympics.
There are also gymnasts who did end their careers after injury. Recently the Samantha Cerio broke both legs in 2019 during the NCAA Regionals. There are worse outcomes. The same year, 20-year-old gymnast Melanie Coleman died from a spinal cord injury suffered during practice.
Chinese gymnast Sang Lan ( 桑兰) was injured during warmup at the 1998 Goodwill Games and became paralyzed. She was 17. Elena Mukhina (1960-2006) was paralyzed after an injury during a practice two weeks before the 1980 Moscow Olympics, trying to perform the now banned Thomas salto.
Mukhina was pressured to add difficulty to her routines. In the case of US gymnast Julissa Gomez had trained with the Károlyis, but in 1987, she switched to another coach, Al Fong. She was seriously injured during practice at the World Sports Fair in Tokyo. During her medical care in Tokyo, she suffered brain damage and became comatose. She was only 15 and died at 19.
There were also gymnasts who injured themselves during the Olympics and continued. Hungarian gymnast Adrienne Nyeste landed face-first when she fell from the uneven bars at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
British gymnast Ellie Downie landed on her head during the qualifications at the Rio Olympics during her floor exercise, but returned to vault. She qualified for all-around and finished 13th. In the team competition, the British women’s team finished fifth.
Shun Fujimoto at Montreal
Downie and Nyeste were all Olympic moments that came after Strug’s, but in 1976 at the Montreal Olympics a Japanese gymnast, Shun Fujimoto (藤本 俊), injured himself during his floor exercise.
The International Gymnastics Hall of Fame describes the Japanese men’s team:
In Montreal, Fujimoto was one of the least known athletes on the Japanese team, which included two-time defending Olympic all-around champion Sawao Kato, the reigning World all-around champion Shigeru Kasamatsu, plus World and Olympic medalists Eizo Kenmotsu and Mitsuo Tsukahara. Just days before the competition began, Kasamatsu required surgery for an emergency appendectomy. So many wondered if Japan’s Olympic dynasty finally had come to an end.
Fujimoto continued and completed the pommel horse and the rings. It was only after his ring performance that his injury (dislocated knee and torn ligaments) was clearly apparent. Although he earned his best score ever (9.7) on the rings, Fujimoto was unable to complete the last three events (vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar) and, in his case, he did not compete again after the Montreal Games. He became a professor and a gymnastics coach.
Fujimoto was 26 at the time. He did not tell his coach or his teammates of his injury. The decision was all his own according to an article in The Guardian: “The competition was so close [Japan were battling USSR for the gold] and I didn’t want the team to lose concentration worrying about me.”
Fujimoto was asked if he would to it again, but he has emphatically said he would not. Yet Fujimoto was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Gymnasts remember him for his sacrifice, but also for his words. It wasn’t worth it. Born in 1950, Fujimoto is from the same generation that produced Bela Károlyi. He was an adult and he made a decision.
Although Strug was born after the Montreal Games, Strug (b. 1977) was not a child when she made her decision to do a second vault in 1996. She was four months shy of turning 19. She could legally drive, but she couldn’t legally vote or drink, but legally she was considered an adult. Heath’s essay on FB infantilizes her. He is not using anything that she has said about her decision and the incident. That might be easier to do because Strug is diminutive and because she is a woman. He is, in effect, man-splaining Strug to his daughters. He further appeals to emotion reminding us of the Larry Nassar scandal, but also by falsely stating that Károlyi threw her aside afterward and that Strug’s career was over as if the injury was catastrophic. In the history of gymnastics, it was not.
Simone Biles is an experience Olympic gymnast. She is 24–near the same age as Fujimoto was during the Montreal Olympics. Biles is making an adult decision, made in the shadows of disastrous decisions by Mukhina and Gomez and the in light of the wisdom of Fujimoto. Biles was born after the Montreal Olympics, but it’s likely that she has heard of Fujimoto or at least she knows about his decision.
Fujimoto’s Olympic moment was resurrected in 2000 (Sydney, Australia) and 2008 (Beijing, China). He was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2017. Like Strug, he is remembered over his teammates because of one decision made as an adult.
Jacoby Miles posted the best response to Biles decision. Miles was 15 when she was injured during practice and is now paralyzed.
Ultimately, Biles, Strug and Fujimoto made the same decision. They did what they thought was best for the team. One could argue that Biles should have withdrawn earlier and ceded her turn at vault to someone else. Sunisa Lee scored a 14.33 on her vault in the qualifying round and if Lee had been able to equal or better than score, that might have lifted the US team although ultimately it would not have been enough. The ROC won by 3.432. Strug and Fujimoto became Olympic moments. With her past performances and the hype building up to the Olympics in Tokyo, Biles does not need an Olympic moment to be remembered.