At the 1996 Summer Olympics, gymnast Kerri Strug became an American hero. But did she have a choice?
Strug, who was 18 years old at the time, was up to perform the final event of the competition—the vault. In order for the United States to take home the gold medal as a team, Strug needed to score a 9.493. In the vault, gymnasts are allowed two attempts. Strug’s first attempt ended in an awkward fall resulting in two torn ligaments in her ankle. Limping back for her second attempt, Strug somehow managed to stick the landing, earning a 9.712 and winning Team USA their first-ever gold medal in gymnastics.
The video of the final vault is iconic. Even 25 years later, Americans recognize it as an incredible achievement. After landing the vault, Strug was suddenly viewed as heroic, brave, and strong for pushing through a severe injury to bring home the gold medal for America. But Athlete A, which debuted Wednesday on Netflix, questions whether or not we should see Strug’s vault solely as an athletic accomplishment.
Athlete A tells the stories of the gymnasts who survived the abuse of Dr. Larry Nassar, a former trainer for USA Gymnastics who was convicted of sexually abusing women and girls over 20 years. But the documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, doesn’t immediately dive into the case against Dr. Nassar. First, it paints a broader picture of the toxic culture of USA Gymnastics (USAG) that led to gymnasts feeling like they had to overcome catastrophic injuries—and a man like Nassar getting away with sexual abuse for decades.
Dr. Nassar’s first accusation dates back to 1997, a year after Strug suffered the ankle injuries and won the gold medal. But but the abusive culture of USAG began long before then. Jennifer Sey, a producer of the film and former USA Gymnastics national champion, said in Athlete A that when she started competing in the mid-’70s, the standard methodology of coaching in elite gymnastics was cruelty. The ’70s were also when Olympic gymnasts began competing at younger ages, especially after Romanian Nadia Comăneci earned the first perfect score and won the gold medal at just 14 years old.
“It created a really dangerous environment because eating disorders became very prevalent,” Sey said in the film. “There’s also the benefit of the coaches having more control when the girls are younger.”
Comăneci’s coaches were Béla and Márta Károlyi, who relocated from Romania to coach the United States’ gymnastics team. With them, they brought the extreme tactics, which they used in coaching Comăneci.
“From the very beginning, Béla had this idea that we will have total control over the girls, absolute control,” said Geza Pozsar, a choreographer for the Károlyis, in the documentary.
The Károlyis were Kerri Strug’s coaches when she made history in 1996. Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Strug began gymnastics at three years old and started to compete at eight. She retired from the sport shortly after the 1996 Summer Games and went on to study at UCLA. In Athlete A, Sey examined Strug’s legendary vault, explaining that while the world was celebrating, she had a different perspective.
“Everybody’s cheering her on as this hero, and all I could think was, ‘Why are we celebrating this? Don’t pretend she had a choice,’” Sey said. “She was not gonna do anything but go do that vault.”
Now, Strug is now a mom of two who splits her time between Arizona and Washington D.C. She earned a master's degree in sociology from Stanford and now works as a program manager for the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. According to an interview from the Houston Chronicle in 2008, Strug disagreed with former teammates speaking out about their coaches' methods.
“From my perspective, in order to be the best on a world-class stage, you have to train incredibly hard,” Strug said. “Do they sometimes take it to another level? Possibly, but that is what it requires. In terms of physical abuse, I can only speak for myself, and that was never an issue.”
Later in the documentary, Sey explains that since high-level gymnastics training starts at such a young age, so does mistreatment and abuse. By the time these girls are of age, “the line between touch coaching and child abuse gets blurred,” she said in Athlete A. When sexual abuse happens, these girls might not realize it’s wrong and abusive.
“Emotional and physical abuse was actually the norm, and we were all so beaten down by that and made so obedient that when we knew there was a sexual abuser in our midst, we would never say anything,” Sey said to Indianapolis Star reporters in Athlete A. “We were just, we felt utterly powerless.”
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