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FIRST!

When she stepped onto the platform, it should be noted, Kerri Strug did not exactly stick her landing. She wobbled. She stood awkwardly, and her step was not what you might expect from a world-class gymnast.

If you want to judge the way Strug landed on the gold-medal platform Tuesday night, you might even use the term sloppy.

If only it were not so glorious.

This is the new image of women's gymnastics. No longer will the sport immediately conjure up the familiar _ and dated _ picture of Mary Lou Retton, with her arms stretched to the sky. Instead, it will be of Strug, standing on the medal platform with a badly sprained ankle, allowing the tears of pain and the tears of pleasure to mix in her eyes and flow down her cheeks. And of her coach, Bela Karolyi, lifting her into his arms, sweeping her around the Georgia Dome in a waltz as the applause cascaded over her, giving her _ and us _ a moment to savor. And of a team of pixies with the hearts of Green Berets and gold medals around their necks.

It has never happened before. For the first time in the history of the Olympics, the United States won a gold medal in the team competition of women's gymnastics. Retton and her teammates could not win it, not even in the Soviet-boycotted Games of 1984. Shannon Miller and Kim Zmeskal and their teammates could not win it in 1992.

But on a night when Miller was sub-par and Dominique Moceanu was still in pain from an old stress-fracture injury, this American team, this Magnificent Seven, scrapped its way to the gold. And the picture everyone will remember is Strug, a 4-foot-9, 80-pound pixie from Tucson, fighting to remain on her feet despite a severe ankle sprain and torn ligaments on the final vault of the evening.

They were hurting together, the U.S. gymnasts and Strug. It was crunch time, three-fourths of the way through the final round of competition, and the team was falling on its rear. Literally. Moceanu had fallen on both her vaults. Strug followed with another fall, hearing a snap and feeling the pain shoot through her left ankle as she landed.

"I was going, "My leg, my leg,' " Strug said. "Everyone was yelling, "Come on, we need you,' but I was telling them there was something wrong with me."

Something was wrong with the team, too. As Karolyi, Strug's personal coach, said, "We had our hands on the silver." So Strug limped back toward the bench and shook her foot, trying to shake away the numbness. Sometimes it works. This time it didn't. But Strug, speaking hours later, her new crutches beside her, said she felt an obligation to try to vault again.

"I felt like I had to do it," Strug said. "If I didn't, I didn't think we were going to win the gold. We were getting closer and closer to the Russians. So I said a little prayer. I said, "I've done this vault a thousand times; let me do it one more time.' And I let the adrenaline take over."

As it turns out, the Americans had enough points to win even if Strug did not take her second vault. At the time, however, no one knew it, and the Russians still had two gymnasts left in the floor exercise.

Should Karolyi have stopped her? Perhaps. He is, after all, the coach, and her health, after all, is more important than a medal. And Karolyi is a target. But only athletes can convey the pain they feel. If he had told her no and the United States had lost, what would his critics say today?

"With someone who isn't an Olympic-level athlete, I think it's the coach's decision," Strug said after a trip to the hospital, where doctors were relieved the ankle was not broken, as originally thought. "But when you are, you should be allowed to make the decision. I'm 18, and I should be able to make my own decisions."

And so it was that Strug sprinted down the runway, launched into her Yurchenko-one-and-a-half-layout position. She landed firmly and raised her arms as all gymnasts do. Slowly, however, she raised her left foot. She hopped to her left, raised her arms again. And then she crumpled to the mat.

Hero? Strug raised her eyebrows at the word. But, she allows, "It took a lot of guts. I didn't know what was wrong with my foot."

Maybe the rest of us didn't know what was right with Strug, either. "She proved to the world she had sacrifice and courage," Karolyi said. "She showed what kind of people we have competing in this sport."

What kind of people? Championship kind of people. The kind who hold off the world-champion Romanians, the Russians, the Ukrainians. The kind who win gold.

"This is the best American team I have seen," Romanian coach Octavius Belu said. "Better than '84 in Los Angeles. Better than in Seoul. They looked like a strong arm, like soldiers out of weapons, out of water, trying to survive."

In the end, then, it really is not important that Strug's final vault was not necessary. It is more important as a statement of toughness and resolve, of willingness to suffer the torment for the treasure.

Strange that it would come from Strug, who has spent her career in the background while other pupils of Karolyi's _ Zmeskal, Betty Okino, Moceanu _ took their turn in the limelight. The scruffy-haired young woman was always around, but the light never seemed to find her.

"To be honest, I am surprised," Karolyi said. "Kerri is such a fragile little girl. We always called her the baby. She sort of hung back from the rest of the team. I did not expect Kerri to be the one."

No one else did, either. After all, Miller was the core of this team, a gymnast who had won more gold medals than any other American. But she stumbled in the floor exercise, drawing a 9.6 from the Russian judge, which drew widespread boos. And Moceanu was its star, a 14-year-old with an autobiography in print. There was Dominique Dawes, the veteran. And Amy Chow. And the rest.

Is there any difference, really, between hitting the big vault when you need it to win and hitting the big vault when everyone in the place believes you need it to win? No. That Strug vaulted into the pain, and through to the other side, is the way this gold will be remembered. And the way it should be.

It will be, you know. The last time there was a moment like this, it was Mary Lou, and thousands of young girls headed to the gym the next day. This could be the same kind of moment. "This is the medal we have wanted since '84," Karolyi said. "We are the strongest, most powerful nation in the world at gymnastics."

Gymnastics has not gotten a free ride lately. There is a dark side to the sport, one where young girls are taken from families to become obsessed with the sport. Where eating disorders are common.

But there is beauty here, too. This night showed that. "If you look around, you see a lot of girls having fun," said assistant coach Mary Lee Tracy. "I think this can mean a lot for the sport."

It can mean a lot for Strug, too, who vaulted out of the shadows and into Olympic memory.

The doctors didn't want her on the medal stand. They wanted to X-ray her ankle. But she turned to Karolyi and, weeping, said she wanted to be with her teammates.

"If you want to," he told her, "the entire New York police department cannot stop me. I will make sure you go with the girls."

And she did. And then he swept her up and, without words, paraded her around the gym, stopping so she could taste the sweetness of her moment. "She deserved it," he would say.

Yes, she did. As did her teammates and her coaches and other gymnasts across the country.

And the rest of us, too.

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