Many of the gymnastics fans rooting for the US Women’s Gymnastics team in Rio vividly remember their predecessors, The Fierce Five. Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross, and Jordyn Wieber famously scored a team gold in London in 2012 and became the darlings of the international media and some of the most recognizable young women in sports. (Douglas and Raisman, of course, as members of the 2016 team as well are looking for a repeat.)
But the Fierce Five were not the first set of American women gymnasts to set the Olympics, and the world in general, on fire with their talent and skill. Before them came The Magnificent Seven and 2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of their stellar success.
Who Were The Magnificent Seven?
As the current US team members were either not born, or mere babies, when the Olympics hit Atlanta, Georgia in 1996 it’s hardly a surprise that many of their biggest fans don’t know very much about the 1996 US Women’s Gymnastics team. For those who don’t remember, The Magnificent Seven was comprised of Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strug, Amy Chow, Amanda Borden, and Jaycie Phelps. And they achieved a feat that many had thought impossible; they won the first ever team gold medal for gymnastics for the United States, breaking a stranglehold the now defunct Soviet Union had held on the competition since 1950.
‘The Atlanta Miracle’
It was acknowledged that the team headed to Atlanta in 1996 was a very strong one, led as it was by Shannon Miller, who is still the most decorated American gymnast in history and was that year’s reigning national champion. But even with seven stellar girls on the team (for the first and only time in Olympic history) most pundits expected bronze for the U.S at best, behind the Soviet Union and China (or Romania or the Ukraine. Few gave the Americans a chance)
Although there were stunning performances from all of the girls on the US team – with Miller, Dawes, and Chow all winning individual medals – the one moment most people who were around and watching in 1996 remember is a single vault performed by the tiny Kerri Strug.
This is how ESPN, then a fledgling sports network, described the drama at the time.
“The U.S. is locked up in another captivating battle with Russia. There is just one apparatus left for the U.S. — the vault — as it leads second-place Russia by .897.
But shockingly, the U.S. lead begins to evaporate after Dominique Moceanu — one of America’s golden girls — falls not once but twice, registering only a 9.20, wiping out a chunk of the U.S. lead and leaving the gold up for grabs.
The gold medal now comes down to Kerri Strug, the quiet gymnast, the understudy to stars Moceanu, Dominique Dawes and Shannon Miller.”
And so ‘little’ Kerri got up to vault. Her first attempt was a nightmare. She fell and and audible crack was heard as she landed badly on her left ankle. Her score was not good – 9.162 – but she had a second attempt left.
It’s now known that Kerri had torn two ligaments in her ankle and should not technically even be able to stand straight. But she did. and she vaulted, and she stuck the landing. The team gold was assured for the US and the world went crazy.
After the Gold
For a full year after their triumph, The Magnificent Seven were everywhere. On chat shows, guesting on TV shows, Keri even appeared in a Prince video, at the star’s request. But 20 years on their lives are very different.
Dominique Dawes has been an integral part of Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign. Dominique Moceanu is an author and jewelry designer. Kerri Strug works for the federal government’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Shannon Miller beat ovarian cancer and now designs gymnastics apparel. And Amy Chow is now Dr. Chow, a highly respected pediatrician.
Only two members of the team really ‘stayed’ in the sport. Jaycie Phelps runs an athletics center and coaches younger gymnasts and Amanda Borden coaches and serves as a gymnastics commentator for several broadcast outlets. However, although they have all gone very different ways, the women got back together again in July, just before the Olympic Trials, giving the 2016 team the chance to meet the women who paved the way for them two decades ago.
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