Like so many Olympic athletes, Kerri Strug scripted her life up to a gold medal. She scheduled her childhood by a series of gymnastics goals, filling her weeks with practice and conditioning while disregarding everything else.
When her training culminated with a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics at age 18, Strug felt purposeless. "I'd never really planned or thought about too much else," Strug said. "I thought that was the end."
It was a beginning.
Eight years later, Strug feels more self-confident, more secure and more satisfied than she did as an elite athlete. She graduated from Stanford, moved to Washington in 2003 and landed a job working for the General Counsel at the Treasury Department. Along the way, she gained something she never had during her Olympic run, and something you won't hear much about during the Games in Athens:
Looking back, Strug said, Olympic glory can sometimes seem trivial. Strug remembers a childhood filled with sacrifice -- serious injuries, an eating disorder, few school friends -- and sometimes wonders, what for?
"Now that I'm out of the sport, I look back and think, 'Why did I get so nervous?' " said Strug. "I mean, it was a gym meet. Why was it so important to do well? My perspective has changed. You don't really realize how silly it all is."
It seemed so serious on July 23, 1996, when Strug captivated the country by landing a vault with a severely sprained left ankle, securing the U.S. women's gymnastics team its first gold medal ever. She made appearances on Leno and Letterman, "Beverly Hills 90210" and the front of a Wheaties box. Over the next month, a half dozen national magazines tattooed Strug's dramatic landing on their cover.
Teary-eyed and grimacing with arms stretched gracefully above her head, society froze Strug in that moment. But she's moved long past it.
Save for her 4-foot-10 height, not much distinguishes Strug as a gymnast anymore. She hasn't vaulted -- or even somersaulted -- in nearly five years. Her once-wiry body has filled out to look a bit softer, so she rarely gets recognized on the street.
Her Olympic gold medal sits in a drawer at her parents' house in Tucson, and she hasn't seen it in months. She said if she has children, she might rather see them take up a lifelong sport -- golf or tennis, maybe -- rather than devote all their time to gymnastics.
Since Strug transferred from UCLA to Stanford after her sophomore year, she has aimed at normalcy and succeeded brilliantly. In Washington, she has all of the things an average 26-year-old might: an apartment, a group of cocktail friends, a job that requires more than regular working hours and, of course, a healthy relationship with a treadmill.
"It might seem boring," said Strug, whose treadmill training has allowed her to complete two marathons. "But considering I was in a gym the majority of my adolescent life, it's critical that I do other things. There's a lot more to the world than gymnastics. I want to broaden my horizons and relax. To me, that's what it means to be healthy."
It's a definition she's landed on by trial and error, since her entire childhood was decidedly frenetic. Strug started competing seriously in gymnastics at age 8, declared herself an Olympic hopeful at 10 and moved away from home to train with coaching legend Bela Karolyi at 13. She scratched her way into the 1992 Olympics, but failed to make the all-around finals.
Then came the sacrifice.
Over the next four years, Strug switched coaches twice, tore her abdomen, fractured her back and developed an eating disorder. "I can't even tell you," Strug said, "how many times I thought about quitting."
The eating disorder brought her closest to walking away. In 1993, she went to train with a new coach, Steve Nunno, who made a habit of frequently weighing his gymnasts.
"I was just at a point in my career when I was willing to do anything and everything to make a change, to make it on top," Strug said. "I thought, 'Okay. Maybe if I'm a little bit lighter and a little bit leaner, I'll flip a little bit better and I'll look a little bit better and maybe that will be the difference.
"So I had issues. I just didn't eat very much at all. I would have like a few bites of this, a few bites of that. And when you're working out like crazy, running a few miles a day, exercising, conditioning and doing gymnastics for six hours, that's a bad situation."
Strug returned home to her parents, who threatened to pull her out of gymnastics. She begged them not to, swearing she would recover quickly. And, after a long night of debate, the family decided Strug could continue to compete -- a verdict the 1996 vault seemed to validate.
But did it?
Even when Strug won gold, signed with an agent and toured around the country as a celebrity, she couldn't help but think about things she had missed.
Her family gathered to play tennis nearly every weekend, and she had never even owned a racket. She missed school dances and school friends. She missed feeling healthy.
Even on the very night Strug nailed her vault, unhappiness plagued her. Worried that she would not be healthy in time for all-around individual competition a few days later, Strug asked doctors to wake her every three hours during the night so that she could stretch her ankle.
"It was like nothing was ever good enough," Strug said. "I never enjoyed the moment. The Olympics, that's one of the greatest moments of my life, and I didn't celebrate. The way I perceive things now, I think it's a lot healthier. I'm just enjoying life more on a daily basis.
"I always had a love-hate relationship with gymnastics. I still do."
Love. She travels several times a month to go to gymnastics functions or promotions. She's in Athens right now, preparing to write a daily column for Yahoo.com about the Olympics.
Hate. She'll always be that girl who did the vault, no matter how many years separate her from that moment. And she'll always have to deal with that nagging question: For what?
"The Olympics, that was just one small part of me," Strug said. "Graduating from college was just as big a deal for me. My sister had a baby, and that was just as big. Life has a lot of milestones, and I've learned not to focus too much on just one of them."