Poem in which Kerri Strug does not vault a second timeDia Roth
—1996 Olympic Gymnastics Team All-Around Competition, Atlanta
after Gabrielle Grace Hogan, and for my sister
Kerri stands at attention—a young soldier—ready
to serve at the pleasure of the public. Our beloved
VHS tape whirs tired as she sprints down the runway
toward ruin and glory: her rippling legs spring
and soar weightless, outstretched body
reaching, arms crossed tight against her torso,
and for a brief moment we forget about gravity.
Kerri isn’t granted this luxury. Patriotism is heavy:
the ground approaches fast, refuses to be ignored
and by the time the rest of us remember,
Kerri has already fallen. Her bangs—having floated
carefree on a self-made wind—wilt
back onto her forehead, shocked
by their own weight. But oh, how we long to mimic
her flight!—our soft approximations tumble
across plush furniture, blue carpet, and
collapse to the floor in awe. Rewind,
watch again how she rises: stoic, determined.
The announcer notices her limping
and remarks, Kerri Strug is hurt!, feigning care.
Her coach, Bela Karolyi—infamous
then for excellence and now for abuse—shouts
from the sideline, You can do it! You can do it!
but no one bothers to wonder if she should.
The announcer reminds us again of the stakes:
It all comes down to Kerri. She needs a 9.493 to ensure
victory over the Russians, although
the scores say otherwise. She could not
vault again and her team would still win. Reader,
spectator, please, hear this: it was decided, long before
Kerri was born, that she would vault again
on this day, broken ankle or no, because
glory has always been worth more than one girl.
So there she balances, toes tipped, on the brink of breaking.
Tears tumble from our eyes now, a brackish
mix of propaganda, spectacle, sick nostalgia: all U S A
and oh say can you feel the Cold
War lingering? We cry every time
the announcer says, she knows what to do, she will go
when she is ready, because oh, reader, what if she didn’t?
What if she turned to her teammates, who recognized
in her the crumple of defeat that comes
when failure is the only alternative
to excellence? What if they rushed to her, pulled
by their magnetized knowing? Their bodies
would whisper hushed confessions, hold each other
close, take Kerri into their sculpted arms,
and carry her home—magnificent.