Thousands of athletes from around the world will gather in London, England, later this month to pursue Olympic gold. For three celebrated American athletes—gymnast Kerri Strug, track legend Edwin Moses and swimming sensation Jenny Thompson—that ambition was achieved. Now, years after winning gold medals for the United States, they recall their triumphant moments and talk about their lives after the Olympics.
During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, 18-year-old gymnast Kerri Strug vaulted into Olympic history and captured Americans’ hearts. As the team gymnastics competition neared its end, a gold medal victory over the previously dominant Russians rested on the shoulders of the fresh-faced girl from Tucson, Ariz.
Adorned in her stars-and-stripes leotard, Strug needed a score of 9.4 on the vault. During her first attempt, she fell and injured her ankle. On her final vault, she stuck her landing before hopping on one leg and collapsing in pain. Her courageous effort earned the United States its first team gold medal in women’s gymnastics.
“I relive that moment on a regular basis,” says Strug, 34, who splits her time living in Arlington, Va., and Tucson. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Does it bother you that 16 years later that’s still how most people remember you?’ And I say, ‘Of course not. It represents who I am as far as my perseverance, fortitude and discipline.’”
Strug has carried those inspiring traits into her life after the Olympics. She earned a master’s degree in sociology from Stanford (Calif.) University and taught elementary school in San Jose, Calif. “I think the kids could connect with me because of my stature and high voice,” says the 4-foot-9 retired gymnast.
In 2003, she moved near Washington, D.C., to work as a staff assistant with the U.S. Office of Presidential Student Correspondence. Two years later, she began working at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “I’m a program manager and I love my job,” says Strug, who monitors government-funded programs designed to improve the lives of children and families. “Many of the programs are after-school programs in high-risk areas. Hopefully, we’re making a different in America’s youth.”
In March, Strug and her husband of two years, Robert Fischer, celebrated the birth of their first child, Tyler.
Using sports for social change
Edwin Moses is one the most dominant athletes in the history of American track and field. Between 1977 and 1987, he was unbeatable, collecting 122 consecutive victories in the 400-meter hurdles and winning gold medals at the 1976 and 1984 Olympic games. Because the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics, Moses was unable to garner his third gold medal.
“The only way I would have lost in 1980 is if I’d fallen down during the race,” says Moses, 56, with a laugh.
Moses, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and attended Morehead College in Atlanta on an academic scholarship, recalls his 1984 win in Los Angeles. “The Olympics in ’84 was a big one for me,” he says. “I was blessed to be able to compete in my home country and win my 104th race during the Olympic games. That really solidified my whole career.”
After winning a bronze medal at the ’88 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Moses attended Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and earned a master’s degree in business administration, adding to his degree in physics. He worked for five years as a financial consultant with an investment bank in Atlanta.
In 2000, he found his latest passion, serving as chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy, which is comprised of a volunteer group of legendary athletes who receive corporate funding to run international sports programs to effect positive social change.
“We started with six projects in four countries, and today we have 91 projects in 36 countries,” says Moses, who has homes in Atlanta and London with his wife, Michelle. “We do everything from using soccer to educate kids in Cambodia about the dangers of [land]mines, to putting on midnight basketball leagues in the U.S. for kids that are in gang areas.”
From the pool to the operating room
Swimmer Jenny Thompson recalls experiencing an assortment of emotions during her first Olympics, the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain, where she won two gold medals and one silver.
“I was so nervous as a 19-year-old, knowing that millions of people were watching,” says Thompson, 39, who began swimming recreationally at age 7 in Georgetown, Mass. (pop. 8,183). “There was the elation of winning the relays, and the disappointment of not winning the 100-meter freestyle when I had the world record at the time. It was an emotional roller coaster.”
By the time her Olympic career ended, Thompson had become one of the most decorated Olympians in history, winning 12 medals, including eight gold medals during the summer Olympics in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004.
Despite her passion for swimming, Thompson kept her sights on a career beyond the pool. “I knew swimming wasn’t going to be my life forever,” says Thompson, who lives in Kennebunk, Maine (pop. 5,214), with her husband of two years, Daniel Cumpelik. “So I wanted to build a career I could have the rest of my life.”
In 2006, Thompson earned her medical degree from Columbia University, and today she’s known as Dr. Thompson. She specializes in pediatric anesthesiology, working with a private practice group in Portland, Maine. “I work with a lot of kids, making sure they’re safe during their surgery and afterward,” she says. “You have to build a relationship with the patients and their parents very quickly. It’s very intense, which is a lot like swimming. I guess that’s part of why I like it.”
When she’s not working in the hospital, she enjoys competing in an occasional triathlon and tries to swim when she has time. “I go to the local YMCA and swim for fitness,” she says. When asked if she’s competitive in the pool, she laughs and adds, “No, it’s usually just me and an 85-year-old man doing laps.”
Want more Olympians? Check out our profile on fencer Mariel Zagunis.