Strug keeps nerve to win gold

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The United States women, borne on a seething wave of patriotic fervour, won their first team gold in the history of the Games here last night.

In an atmosphere that resembled one long penalty shoot-out, the nerves of the home team held under the huge pressure of expectation as they overhauled Russia, leaders after the first day's compulsories.

However, it took a performance of enormous nerve and courage from 19- year-old Kerri Strug to revive a flagging cause with the final US effort of the day in the vault, where the gymnasts can have two attempts.

After seeing her training partner, the much-feted Dominique Moceanu, land on her bottom in the first and then, calamitously, the second of her vaults, Strug seemed to have been unnerved. In her first attempt, she too landed unceremoniously. But with her, and her country's, last effort, she achieved all that was required, despite injuring her left foot as she landed. The score of 9.712 flashed up as she was borne away in pain - and victory.

No one was operating under more pressure than the prodigious, diminutive 14-year-old Moceanu, whose participation in the Games had been in doubt because of a stress fracture to her leg. In the end, the expectation became too much for the girl who has already been on the cover of Vanity Fair and has released her first autobiography. In the end, however, a team effort secured a team win.

The home gymnasts, who had started with a deficit to make up on Russia after Sunday's compulsory exercises, began with the two most nerve-racking disciplines, the uneven bars and then the balance beam. It worked in their favour, but not before unmeasurable amounts of nervous tension had been expended.

A sigh of dismay reached the roof of the Georgia Dome as Strug wobbled on the beam before righting herself. Five minutes beforehand the fortunes of Elena Dolgopolova, first on to the uneven bars for Russia, had tipped the other way as she dropped off, scoring only 9.212.

With the floor and the vault to come, the US led by 0.497 points - a happy, if not definitive position.

Moceanu, spookily calm until the last challenge of the evening, had flipped and whirled on the beam, her feet thumping down like darts into the bull. For a moment it looked as though her coach, Bela Karolyi, was going to shake the little mite to death as he leant over the barrier in congratulation. He did the same at the end, with a measure of consolation. Her vaulting ambition had o'er-leaped itself, but America had their gold.