Dave Barry

Classic '96: A little gymnast can go a long way


Gold Medalist Kerri Strug gets carried off podium by her Coach Bela Krolyli after ceremony.
Gold Medalist Kerri Strug gets carried off podium by her Coach Bela Krolyli after ceremony. MIAMI HERALD FILE

This Dave Barry column was originally published Friday, July 26, 1996 .

I went to watch the Tiny Women Athletes About The Size Of A Toothbrush Flagrantly Defying Gravity Event, also known as women's gymnastics.

This event is hugely popular, and the arena was packed to the rafters with a cheering, star-studded crowd. Among the stars studding it was O.J. Simpson, who will compete later this week in the Men's 50-Mile Bronco Chase.

But O.J. was not the center of attention. The center of attention was the women gymnasts, who are really, really small. The reason why their sport is so well-suited to television is that these women could fit, in their entirety, inside your TV set. They look as though they just climbed out of little boxes in the Gymnast Barbie section of Toys R Us.

But they're huge media stars here at the Olympics. One of them, Dominique Moceanu, is 14 years old and possesses two- thirds of the world's known supply of cuteness. She also has an agent, and has already had an autobiography published, which raises the question: What does a 14-year-old's biography SAY?

" . . . and then in second grade, my teacher was Mrs. Weeberman, and the other kids in my class were Tiffany, Jason, Shannon, Ashley, Tiffany, Jennifer, Tyler, Tiffany, Taylor, Tiffany . . . "

The night I went was the finals of the women's team competition, and a large media corps turned out, including many reporters who had never covered women's gymnastics and frankly could not execute a somersault without the aid of a forklift. Nevertheless -- remember, we ARE the news media -- we all became leading gymnastics experts within minutes.

We'd sit there, chewing our hot dogs, and watch some tiny woman sprint down a runway, do a high-speed back flip onto a springboard, which propelled her, still spinning, onto the vault, from which she would launch herself even HIGHER into the air, up in Michael Jordan territory, where she'd execute some impossible whirling spinning twisting back-flipping maneuver that would cause an ordinary person's internal organs to come flying out from sheer centrifugal force, and then, what seemed like  several minutes later, the tiny woman would finally come down and somehow land ON HER FEET.

Over in the press section, we experts would pause in chewing our hot dogs, frown, and say: "She hopped a little bit on that landing."

The big moment of the night -- if you missed it, tune in to NBC, which replays it approximately 275 times per hour -- was when Kerri Strug had to make a critical vault on an injured ankle. She raced down the runway, launched her tiny body into the air and -- in a moment that none of us will ever forget -- got stuck in the rafters.

No, really, she made the vault, and it was pretty darned impressive, even to the news media. Afterward, while Kerri was at the hospital, we all crowded around her coach, Bela Karolyi, to hear him tell what had happened on that last vault. Bela REALLY likes to talk to the media, so he stood there for about an hour, telling the story over and over, and each time the version got more elaborate. Bela's first version was: "I told her, 'You must do it!' And she said, 'I will!' "

A little later, after he was warmed up, Bela was saying "I told her, Kerri! The hopes and dreams of all these people are riding on this vault! You must not let them go down the drain!"

I'm pretty sure that Bela's final version had him putting his arm around Kerri's shoulder and singing The Impossible Dream.

But whatever happened, it was pretty exciting. I was so impressed that I'm thinking of taking up gymnastics myself. I've already arranged for the forklift.