Who Did Bela Karolyi Say "You Can Do It" To? The Moment Of Encouragement Went Down In History


On Tuesday, in line with the nation's high expectations, the U.S. women's gymnastics team won the team final with a total score of 184.897 points, beating out the second-place Russian team by nearly 10 points. The incredible win brings to mind that memorable moment when USA gymnastics team coach Bela Karolyi's "you can do it" helped Kerri Strug prevail after what could have been a debilitating setback in 1996. Since then, both Bela and Martha have helped lead the team to victory as its national coordinators.

It's no surprise that Team USA, comprised of prodigies like Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas and trained by legendary gymnastics coaches, defeated the competition this time around. But there have been times where taking home the gold hasn't always been so easy, even for Karolyi-trained athletes.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics was one of those rare instances. Team USA was narrowly leading second-place Russia (sound familiar?) — until the vault, that is. U.S. gymnast Dominique Moceanu fell during the vault — not once but twice — and chipped away at the U.S.' lead. It was up to then-19-year-old gymnast Strug — who Karolyi later called the best vaulter on the team — to make up the difference and take home the gold.

"I just heard this 'ooooh' from the crowd, and looked up and saw on the huge screen that Dominique had fallen on her first vault," Strug recalled of Moceanu's fall in a commemorative video made for the 2012 London Olympics. "I was kind of taken aback, because Bela's girls maybe have a little wobble, or a hop, or a step, but they usually don't fall. ... I just was flabbergasted when she fell yet again."

And then Strug fell, too.

IOPP/AFP/Getty Images

Not only did she fall; she also tore two ligaments in her ankle, but she still had one chance left at the vault. Karolyi later called Strug's fall "devastating."

"When I got up, my left ankle felt a little strange," she said. "'Whatever is in my ankle, it's just going to go away, it has to, this is the Olympics!'" she told herself. She limped all the way back to the end of the vault runway, where Karolyi shouted his now-infamous affirmation: "Kerri, you can do it! You can do it! You can do it!"

And she did.

Strug ran, flipped, and executed a nearly-perfect landing — on both feet — then hopped onto one foot and fell to her knees in pain. Thanks to Strug's expert flip, Team U.S.A. took home the gold.

IOPP/AFP/Getty Images

"I think it's kind of strange that the best gymnastics coach in the world, that's all he came up with," Strug later said of Karolyi's encouragement. "But it also makes a lot of sense, because in workouts, Bela's always like 'It can be faster, it can be higher, stronger, that's no good, what are you thinking?' So in a competition, when he's really excited and being positive... you're like, 'yeah, you're right, I can do this, and I will do this.'"

It turns out that Karolyi's famous affirmation was just the first thing he came up with.

"I had nothing better coming to my mind at that point," Karolyi later admitted.

Clearly, it was the right thing to say because the moment has gone down in history.