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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former gymnastics star Kerri Strug, who vaulted into Olympic history on an injured ankle in 1996 to secure a first U.S. women's team gold medal, has parlayed that defining moment into a career motivating youth to work hard and do their best.
Now 34, married, and with a newborn son, Strug says that sixteen years after she aggravated an injury to win a team gold for the United States, there are things more important than medals.
"I look back on that moment and I was devastated I didn't get to compete further," said Strug, who was unable to contend for individual gold medals because of the vault injury.
"The Olympics is about more than gold medals," she said, speaking by telephone from Tucson, Arizona, where she owns a house in her childhood neighborhood. "It's about human spirit, the heart and the drive that a lot of athletes have and human beings have in general."
The diminutive Strug now works to motivate children and youth as a program manager at the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency in Washington.
She also has helped fundraising for the U.S. Olympic Training Center's facilities for the 2012 Games in London and will be at the Olympics working with a U.S. team sponsor, Hilton HHonors.
She repeatedly uses one of the most celebrated moments in U.S. Olympic history to demonstrate what is possible.
"I encourage our youth or even adults to find what they love, work hard at it and try be the best that you can," she said.
At the 1996 Atlanta Games the 18-year-old Strug vaulted once in the team competition, injuring her ankle as she fell on the landing. The United States team needed a higher score so her coach Bela Karolyi sent a limping Strug down the runway to vault again. She took a deep breath, sprinted, spun in the air, and landed solidly on both feet. The vault left Strug with three torn ligaments in her ankle.
Her score allowed the U.S. women to overcome decades of gymnastics domination by the former Soviet Union, its successor Russia, and Romania.
Critics of Karolyi, including one of Strug's former teammates Dominique Moceanu, accuse the burly Romanian defector - who coached Romanian Nadia Comaneci to the first ever perfect score at an Olympics in 1976 - of pushing young girls too hard.
Strug acknowledges that Olympic-caliber gymnastics is a punishing sport, with total devotion required of girls barely in their teens who must endure pain from frequent injuries.
For Strug, the darkest time was in 1993 when a stomach injury resulted in weight loss and put her out of training for six months. After she came back to training, she took a bad fall off the uneven bars and suffered a hairline fracture in her back and thought seriously about retiring.
But Strug said she had a different experience with Karolyi than Moceanu.
"I feel extremely indebted to Karolyi. I chose to train with him. He's not there to be my best friend or a father figure. He's there to get me to be the very best gymnast that I possibly can and he pushes you past your comfort zone each and every day," Strug said.
"On a daily basis did I like him? Not really. But when I took a step back I loved the fact that I knew he was making me the best gymnast I could possibly be," she said.
Karolyi will be the NBC television gymnastics expert commentator in London. His wife Marta succeeded him in charge of the U.S. women's team, which will be a strong contender in London for the first U.S. women's team gold medal since 1996, according to Strug.
The U.S. Olympic Trials begin in San Jose, California on Thursday and among the young stars expected to make the team are Alexandra Raisman, 18, and a pair of 16-year-olds Gabrielle Douglas and 2011 all-around world champion Jordyn Wieber.
"They have been at the top of the medals platform for several years now and we're expecting them to do phenomenal at these Games," Strug said of the U.S. team, which won the team gold medal at the world championships last year.
Reporting By Lily Kuo; Editing by Greg McCune