Every Olympics has those moments that even the casual fans remember forever. In line with “The Miracle On ice,” and Michael Phelps performance in Beijing was the amazing effort by 18 year old gymnast Kerri Strug in the 1996 Atlanta Games. Strug, who in 1992 became the youngest Olympian ever at age 14, was up last on vault. She fell and injured her ankle on the first vault, but managed to stick the landing on her second try before collapsing in pain, helping to secure gold for the American team. That image of her being carried off after securing her team the top spot made headlines around the world.
Since leaving the spotlight Strug has remained in and around the limelight, assisting other young athletes and doing charity work as a motivational speaker. As London 2012 dawns, the Washington. D.C. resident is back in the promotional spotlight, working with Hilton on their “Support the Dream” program, which encourages fans to submit good luck messages to Team USA, and for every good luck message posted, HHonors will donate $1 worth of amenities to help improve U.S. Olympic Training facilities, up to $250,000 worth of improvements.
We caught up with Strug to ask her about her work and get her thoughts on the world of gymnastics today and what lies ahead for the London Olympics.
There seems to be more creative ways that brands are working with consumers to support Olympic efforts this year. What do you like about the Hilton program that sets it apart?
The Hilton HHonors “Support the Dream” program is a great way for everyone to feel like they are part of the Olympic experience. Not everyone can compete in the Games or be in London, but everyone can show their support for Team USA. The “Support the Dream” program is really special because for every message posted, Hilton HHonors is going to contribute refurbishments to U.S. Olympic Training Centers, which will give the athletes a comfortable place to rejuvenate after their long days of training.
How has the world of gymnastics changed since you were competing, and is it for the better?
When I was competing the age limit was 14 and now it is 16. Scoring in gymnastics has also changed since my competition days and gymnasts no longer need to be all-around competitors. Change is inevitable and hopefully it is for the better. I do know that the USA Gymnastics team is a dynamic, strong team and it will be a great year for them.
Social media has become such a big part of getting the message out there for athletes, would you have found it helpful or a distraction during your time as an athlete?
Social media has added an entirely new component to an athlete’s career. I think it is beneficial because athletes can market themselves better, connect with their fans and directly feel the support of those fans.
Before her unexpected retirement this week, Shawn Johnson said she has succeeded because her family kept her grounded and she tried to live as normal a teenage life as possible. How important was family support for you when you were competing?
Family support was extremely important. When training for the Olympics, there is definitely a fine line between being pushed and supported and I was fortunate that my parents knew where that line was and gave me the support I needed to succeed.
Shawn also said once she had kids she would not encourage them to compete in high level gymnastics. Would you encourage your kids to follow in your path?
Being an athlete, I do think there are a lot of benefits to playing a sport. I feel that is important to be supportive of your child and back them in what makes them happy whether that is athletics, music or art.
What has been the greatest moment for you since you left the limelight of Olympic competition?
I will always cherish my gold medal moment, standing on the podium and hearing the national anthem play, but the birth of my son, Tyler, has without a doubt been my greatest moment since the Olympic Games.
The Hilton program is all about adding amenities to help athletes in the U.S. train. What has been the biggest change in training that you have seen for gymnasts over the years?
The biggest change in women’s gymnastics is that there is now a centralized system where everyone trains together at the Karolyi Ranch. When I was competing, I chose where to train, so I was not with my entire team and having everyone in one location makes it much more of a team effort.
What athletes, both gymnasts and in any sport, do you see as being the biggest stories in London this summer?
I think both the women’s and men’s gymnastics teams will be teams to watch in London this summer, and of course seeing Michael Phelps compete again will be a great experience. The best thing about the Olympics is that you never know exactly what is going to happen and I look forward to seeing what stories unfold.