Tuesday, June 17, 2008

CHICAGO — One of the Magnificent Seven is now a doctor, while another got her law degree. Kerri Strug's ankle healed a long time ago. And Dominique Moceanu, the baby of the squad that was the first U.S. women's gymnastics team to win Olympic gold? She's got a baby of her own now.

If you haven't seen us since 1996, you're in for a big wake-up call. We've all changed," Shannon Miller, the most decorated American gymnast, said with a laugh. "I get a lot of people that still expect to see that 15-year-old or that 19-year-old, and all the sudden you're 31."

The Mag Seven - Miller, Strug, Moceanu, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes and Jaycie Phelps - will have one of their rare reunions Thursday, when they're inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. The gymnasts are the team entry in this year's class, beating out even the Dream Team in the fan vote.

"I was absolutely blown away," said Borden, the team captain. "It's such an honour to know how much people appreciated everything we did. As an athlete, that Olympics is one moment. To be inducted into the Hall of Fame is a lifetime."

The Americans took a talented, veteran group to the Atlanta Games. Miller, Dawes and Strug were part of the bronze-medal team in Barcelona, and Miller had won four other medals, including a silver in the all-around. Each team member had been to at least one world championships.

But the Eastern European powerhouses - Russia and Romania - still had a stranglehold on the Olympic title, and many assumed it would be more of the same in Atlanta.

"We believed we could win. We believed we could beat the Russians and the rest of world," Miller said. "We weren't going to jinx it and we weren't going to be arrogant about it. (But) we had an inner confidence that we knew we could do it."

The Americans were a close second to the Russians after the compulsories, and moved into the lead after the first event in the finals. With a raucous Georgia Dome crowd cheering them on, the gold appeared to be theirs as they went into their final rotation, the vault.

But Moceanu fell on both of her vault attempts. Strug fell on her first attempt, too, badly spraining her ankle in the process.

Fearing the gold medal was slipping away, Strug got back up and vaulted again in what would become one of the iconic images of the Atlanta Games. She landed on both feet, pulled her left leg up while she saluted the judges, then collapsed in agony as pandemonium reigned in the arena.

It was the first time since 1950 that a non-Eastern Bloc country had won a world or Olympic title.

"Oftentimes people will say, 'You look familiar. Did you go to my high school?"' said Strug, now a project manager for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington.

"I'll say, 'I think you probably know me because I'm a gymnast.' They'll process the information and ... some will ask, 'Is your ankle OK?' That one I get a little chuckle out of because it has been 12 years.

"It's a good feeling to know you're still remembered and people have that recognition of you."

Though the members of the Magnificent Seven keep in contact through e-mail and text messages, their schedules make reunions a rarity.

Chow, who went to medical school, is doing her residency. Borden, who has a gym in Tempe, Ariz., and Moceanu, who lives in Cleveland, are new moms. Miller is in demand as a motivational speaker and broadcaster. Phelps is coaching, and Dawes recently served as president of the Women's Sports Foundation.

"It's really hard to get all seven of us together. Now that we're throwing husbands and babies into it, it's REALLY hard," Borden said. "We really appreciate the moments that we get to share together."

And they're not about to waste any of that time.

The women will spend Thursday morning hosting a clinic for local kids at Chicago's Union Station. That night, they'll gather with family and friends for the induction ceremony.

The Hall is presented by Allstate, which helped revive it in 2004 after it had been inactive for 12 years.

"The reflection of the moment and celebrating the moment, to me, it's always very emotional," Borden said. "As you get older, you start to appreciate a lot of the little things you've done in life. I hope to be able to really relish and take it all in.

"I really think it'll probably be one of most exciting moments I've had in a long time." 

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