No longer child's play for control freak Strug

Former gymnast Kerri Strug poses at her home in Tucson, Arizona, June 22, 2012. REUTERS/Rob Schumacher

LONDON (Reuters) - As a self-confessed control freak whose gymnastics career was all about regimentation, Kerri Strug cannot quite believe how her life has spiralled out of control over the past four years -- all thanks to her children Tyler and Alayna.

"Because of my athletics background I thought I’d be a really strict mom and that I’d put my children on really tight schedules. But once I had them, it’s not how it’s gone," 1996 Olympic champion Strug told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"I like to be in control. As an athlete you are focused on you and your actions. But my kids don’t necessarily always want to do what I want them to do.

"I don’t discipline them as much as I should. They just have to give me a cute smile or shed a few tears and then usually they get what they want.

"I’m hoping as they get older I get back a little bit more power in the relationship."

"Control" and "discipline" were the two buzzwords that dictated Strug's life for almost two decades.

It was that single minded focus which, despite being in excruciating pain, allowed the American to take a leap of faith at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and ended with her landing a vault on an already damaged ankle.

The fact that three seconds later she had collapsed to her knees, or that she had to be carried back into the arena by her coach Bela Karolyi for the medal ceremony will forever remain as one of the abiding images of the Olympics.

While 20 years have passed since that vault led to her face being plastered on a Wheaties box -- which now lies "empty without the cereal in it at my parent’s house" -- for Strug that iconic moment is more about her failures than triumphs.

"I was very upset at what happened as I had anticipated competing in the individual (apparatus) and all-around finals," said Strug, whose bravery helped the United States to seal their first ever women's Olympic gymnastics team title.

"Winning individual medals was why I had stuck in for another four years after Barcelona. So my mindset at the time was that I didn’t accomplish all my goals, that I didn’t win as many medals as I had wanted.

"But over the years I have come to understand the impact of that vault and what transpired probably superseded winning numerous individual medals, in terms of notoriety," added Strug, who had injured her left ankle when she crash landed following her first vault.


"A lot of athletes win a lot of medals but it’s the story behind them that people remember. I would have liked to have performed a vault to inspire ... but not to have injured myself to the degree that I had."

Failing to fulfil her goals is something that haunted Strug throughout her sporting career but rather than getting depressed about it, she chose to use it as a motivational tool.

"Not getting what I wanted in (the 1992) Barcelona (Games) made me want to get it at Atlanta that much more and allowed me to work that much harder to get there," said Strug.

"I was just 14 (in 1992) so I wasn’t allowed at the opening ceremony... so there was some disappointment. But as I’ve gotten older I appreciate ... it was a big deal to be the youngest Olympian there.

"I realise we learn more from our failures than our successes and had I made it to the all around final or individual event finals in Barcelona and won any colour medal, I may not have stuck with it for another four years for Atlanta.

"So I’m glad things did not go exactly how I wanted in Barcelona. It was a good thing."

Strug's post-Atlanta activities included an appearance in teenage drama Beverly Hills 90210, tossing the coin at an NFL game, ringing the bell to open trading on the New York Stock Exchange and attending then U.S. President Bill Clinton's 50th birthday bash.

But rather than becoming a permanent fixture on the celebrity circuit, the 38-year-old is now happy being "just another mum, another colleague or another co-worker".

Describing herself as "a worker-bee", Strug is responsible for motivating the country's next generation in her job as a "program manager for Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention".

Being a federal civil servant might not have been one of her childhood ambitions but it is a job that has allowed her to move back to the Tucson neighbourhood she grew up in, and live five doors away from her parents.

"When I was really young... I wanted to be a paediatrician because my father’s a cardiovascular surgeon," said Strug, whose parents help take care of her four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter whenever she has to go away for business trips.

"As I grew older, I realised I didn’t really love science. So although I wanted to help people, and being a doctor sounded good, I realised I would have to take a lot of classes in science which I was not good at and didn’t really love.

"I don’t believe I would have made a very good paediatrician. I would get upset with the parents instead of calming them down.

"When you are a child, I don’t think anyone says ‘I want to work for the federal government'. In a sense, I’m still helping people, just not in the way I had dreamed of.

"I’m a person who had a dream, attained it and now want to be a good wife and good mother. Everything works out for the best."

(Editing by Rex Gowar and Tony Jimenez)

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