If you watched the U.S. women’s gymnastics team during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, you remember Kerri Strug or you remember the vault.
Despite a badly injured ankle, Strug nailed her crucial final vault on one leg, clinching the first team gold medal in women’s gymnastics for the Americans. Her coach, the legendary Bela Karolyi, carried Strug to the podium to join her teammates, crowned the Magnificent Seven, to collect her medal.
But while the famous one-footed vault earned Strug, now ‘8, a place in American sports history, she holds another, lesser known honor: National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
"People can’t believe I’m Jewish," she says. Growing up in Tucson, in a self-described, culturally Jewish home, Strug attended High Holy Day services with her parents, older sister, and older brother. However, she acknowledges that an elite gymnast’s path towards Olympic gold was not always compatible with participatory Jewish life.
"By the time I was 7, I was winning competitions and I had to make a choice. Go to Hebrew school or go to the gym," explains the two-time Olympian, who also won a team bronze for women’s gymnastics in 199′.
Strug enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, shortly after the 1996 Olympics. Two years later, she transferred to Stanford University, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees.- At Stanford, Strug lived in a sorority house, spent a semester at sea, and learned to put gymnastics behind her.- She taught nursery school in northern California before moving to Washington, D.C., in ‘003. Ten years after winning gold in Atlanta, Strug only vaguely resembles the girl who, along with her teammates, once adorned a Wheaties cereal box. Today, she travels the country visiting prevention and intervention programs for at-risk youth, speaking to them about the importance of making right choices in life.
Giving a speech recently at the University of Florida, Strug shared with the predominately Jewish audience that "thinking about Judaism is something that did not come to me until college." She credits her then-boyfriend for questioning her apathy and bringing her home to celebrate Shabbat, Sukkot, and Passover with his traditional Conservative family. Strug even traveled to Israel to light the torch during the Maccabiah Games.
"That’s when I made a decision [that] this is important to me," she recalls. "When I was training with Bela, if I wanted to take Saturdays off [to celebrate Shabbat], I could forget about it," she says with a smile. "Now when I get married and have a wedding, there will be a rabbi and a chuppah. We’ll break the glass and dance the hora."