By Suzanne Kurtz
Ten years after winning gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics, Kerri Strug embarks on her own Jewish journey.
If you watched the U.S. women's gymnastics team during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, you remember Kerri Strug.
Or you remember the vault.
Despite a badly injured ankle, Strug nailed her crucial final vault on one leg, clinching the first team gold medal in women's gymnastics for the Americans. Her coach, the legendary Bela Karolyi, carried Strug to the podium to join her teammates, crowned the Magnificent Seven, to collect her medal.
But while the famous one-footed vault earned Strug, now 28, a place in American sports history, she holds another, lesser known honor - National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inductee.
"People can't believe I'm Jewish," she says over coffee near the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency in Washington, D.C. Strug joined the Department of Justice as a special advisor to the administrator in March 2005.
"I get the same question over and over 'You're Jewish?'" she says.
Growing up in Tucson, in a self-described, culturally Jewish home, Strug attended High Holy Day services with her parents, older sister and older brother.
However, she acknowledges an elite gymnast's path towards Olympic gold was not always compatible with participatory Jewish life.
"By the time I was seven, I was winning competitions and I had to make a choice. Go to Hebrew school or go to the gym," explains the two-time Olympian, who also won a team bronze for women's gymnastics at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. "Maybe it was a poor decision, but my parents said our daughter has this talent, let's embrace it."
One month shy of her 13th birthday, Strug moved to Houston to train with Karolyi and lived with a host family. But when her parents came to visit at Chanuka time, they brought a menorah for her to light.
"My parents taught me to be a good person and to value education," she says. "And that to me is very Jewish."
Strug enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles shortly after the 1996 Olympics. Two years later she transferred to Stanford University earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. At Stanford, Strug lived in a sorority house, spent a semester at sea and learned to put gymnastics behind her. She taught nursery school in northern California before moving to Washington, D.C., in 2003.
Ten years after winning gold in Atlanta, Strug only vaguely resembles the girl who, along with her teammates, once adorned a Wheaties cereal box. Today, she travels the country visiting prevention and intervention programs for at-risk youth, speaking to them about the importance of making right choices in life. She is petite and pretty with straight blonde hair, long and pulled back behind her ears. Her tailored business suit befits her role as a political appointee.
"Sometimes it feels like Atlanta was yesterday and other times it feels like it was another life," says Strug. "My days are so different and my focus is different."
Giving a speech recently at the University of Florida, Strug shared with the predominately Jewish audience that "thinking about Judaism is something that did not come to me until college."
She credits her then boyfriend for questioning her apathy and bringing her home to celebrate Shabbat, Sukkot and Passover with his traditional Conservative family. Strug even traveled to Israel to light the torch during the Maccabiah Games.
"That's when I made a decision this is important to me," she recalls.
"When I was training with Bela, if I wanted to take Saturdays off [to celebrate Shabbat], I could forget about it," she says with a smile. "Now when I get married and have a wedding, there will be a rabbi and a chuppah. We'll break the glass and dance the hora."
And no one will question if Kerri Strug is Jewish.Suzanne Kurtz is editor of Hillel Campus Report.