They stood side-by-side, lined up and ready for the flashbulbs to go off, but there was one problem: Only six of them were present.
“Kerri! Where’s Kerri?” Jaycie Phelps yelled.
It was earlier this month at the SAP Center in San Jose and the Magnificent Seven – that 1996 gold medal-winning team – was back together, each and every one of them for a special event, the Parade of Olympians, honoring over 140 gymnasts from Olympics past in the U.S.
Only, the Mag 7 needed Kerri Strug before their picture could be taken.
“There she is,” Dominique Dawes said, Strug scurrying into the middle of the group shot.
The cameras started going off in droves as Strug, Phelps, Dawes, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Amy Chow and Amanda Borden flashed those same smiles we saw on the podium 20 years ago, when the team won the most memorable U.S. Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
“Being the first women’s team to win gold and having it in the United States, on home soil, that’s why I think people remember us so much,” explained Miller a few minutes later. “It was such a dramatic way that we won the gold with Kerri on the vault; an iconic moment. People know exactly what they were doing and where they were in that moment.”
Plenty of moments have gone by since that one two decades ago, but it remains one of the most vivid for fans in modern gymnastics. It’s a rarity for the Magnificent Seven to all be in one place at one time, the debate unclear as to when they were last all together at once.
Needless to say, however, life has continued and they each have been married since, have families and businesses and lives and careers. When they see one another there is lots to talk about, and perhaps reminisce on memories from their gymnastics past.
“We are all catching up on what we’re doing today and where everyone’s life has gone: Family, kids, careers,” said Phelps, who now owns a gym in Arizona. “There’s an occasional throw-in of some memories from 20 years ago, but it’s more about what we’re doing right now and trying to keep up with each other that way.”
They dot the country, working as motivational speakers, gymnastics coaches and in politics. Their place in our hearts is unending, however.
“I think it was only later that we recognized what we did,” explained Miller of the impact of that gold medal. “It was so chaotic and you almost don’t believe it until it’s hanging around your neck… it takes a few years, even a decade for it to really sink in.”
2008 Olympian Sam Peszek described what an impact it had on her at a young age.
“The whole ’96 team was my inspiration for wanting to go to the Olympics,” Peszek said. “I was five, and I was doing gymnastics, but it was the first moment that I remember thinking, ‘I want to go to the gym everyday so that I can go to the Olympics.’ That was the first time I ever had a goal, because of the team. My five-year-old self is fan-girling a lot.”
Strug detailed her memory of the seconds between her two vaults, when Bela Karolyi uttered those famous words to her and she delivered a second – gold medal-securing – effort.
“I looked to Bela for something, and he told me, ‘You can do it.’ All these years later, I’m like, ‘Really? That’s all that he thought of?’” Strug said, laughing. “But for him, I think he knew that I knew what to do, and he just wanted me on autopilot. I had done all the hard work and had all of the technique so I think he felt like it would be over-thinking if he went through all of that.”
It’s a life achievement that none of the women will ever forget, and in fact impacts their lives on a daily basis.
“It’s in the past, but at the same time, it’s a crucial part of where I am today,” said Phelps. “I’m a full-time coach and own my own facility, and it’s a huge part of my life, I live the sport everyday. I think mostly everything that I learned from that experience I’m trying to give back to the next generation of kids. I want them to remember me the way that I remember my coaches.”
“All the training and hard work that I learned through sport that helped me in every aspect of my life,” added Miller. “The things I learned with goal-setting skills, perseverance, learning how to rely on a team… I relied on those things going through my cancer battle and as a mom and a business owner. They stick with you and they help you in every aspect of your life.”
And no matter how special 1996 will always be, the chance to all reunite and be celebrated again is something even the Magnificent Seven can appreciate.
“We won gold 20 years ago and to be recognized and honored 20 years later is such a fun experience,” said Phelps. “We rarely get to get together like this. People still remember what we did. And that’s special to me and I think to all of us.”