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The Peter Principal : Cathy Rigby Has Found a Stage Role, and a Self, That She’s Happy With

For Cathy Rigby, it took a lot of growing up to play the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

The 5-foot, 90-odd-pound blond marvel on the balance beam, whom America fell in love with during the 1968 and ’72 Olympics, spent nearly 12 years battling bulimia--an eating disorder in which she binged on food, then used laxatives or self-induced vomiting to keep her weight down. She also weathered a divorce from former professional football player Tommy Mason, father of her two oldest children, Buck, 13, and Ryan, 9.

Rigby never won an Olympic medal, but she won a dozen in international competitions between the Mexico City and Munich Games.

At 36, and a still-tiny 100 pounds after recovering from bulimia, Rigby is married to Tom McCoy, president of their joint production company, with whom she also has two children: Theresa, 6, and Kaitlin, 3. Today, Rigby lectures about eating disorders.

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She also throws the same passion into theater that she once gave to gymnastics. When she makes her San Diego debut in Starlight Musical Theatre’s “Peter Pan” at the Civic Theatre tonight through June 4, it will mark 15 years since she first tackled the part for NBC Entertainment in Sacramento. Rigby soared there, but only physically. The production used voice-overs.

Intent on a stage career, Rigby took singing lessons during those 15 years, and was rewarded with another shot at “Peter Pan” at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera Assn. in 1986. Robert Koehler of The Times compared her favorably with the most famous actresses in the role, Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan. Rigby has also played in “Meet Me in Saint Louis” and “Paint Your Wagon” and was lavishly reviewed for her work as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” two years ago at the Terrace Theatre in Los Angeles.

But Peter Pan is Rigby’s favorite role, and she and her husband plan to take the show on a 29-city tour. They are booked at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles next May and they have their “fingers crossed for Broadway,” Rigby said.

“It’s one of those shows that is perfect for me,” Rigby said on a rehearsal break in Balboa Park. “The singing is perfect for the kind of voice I have. Having the athletic and gymnastic background makes it easier for me. And, because I’m so small, I look like one of the lost boys.”

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Still, though her athletic background is definitely a plus in a role she equates with “running a 440 and singing with a vise around you” (the vise refers to the flying harness she wears for the part), she does not want to be known as the Olympic Peter Pan.

“It’s tough being an athlete walking in, even though I have done it for the last 15 years,” she said. “I do a handstand here and there if it comes naturally. But I don’t want people to think, ‘This is Cathy Rigby, so we’ll all have some gymnastics now.’ ”

What Rigby likes best about Peter Pan is his confidence--a quality that took her years to develop.

One of the most telling connections between her athletic and dramatic careers is the way each has cracked and finally released her from the timid shell she had as a child.

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“I was one of the shyest people in high school,” Rigby recalled. “If anyone had asked me to sing, I would have turned away and cried, I would have been so embarrassed.

“But I did have confidence in gymnastics. . . . I learned that you might fall on your backside, but then you

get up. You make a commitment and you go through with it. You may not be great at first, but you get through it, and then you get better.”

But confidence in gymnastics did not always carry over to the rest of her life. One thing Rigby said she had to learn was that, although striving for perfection in gymnastics might lead to success, striving for perfection in life was more likely to lead to disaster.

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“I was still very shy until I made a life change and met my current husband,” Rigby said. “I thought that (with) every bad move I made in life, people might be taking points off of me, just like in gymnastics. I never learned to express feelings and didn’t even know what my feelings were. I was the image of Cathy Rigby who never had an opinion of her own, just what was given to her.

“Then my husband said (that) as an actress you will never grow if you never take chances. He said it’s OK to be human and to make mistakes. That’s the only way you will build strength.”

She smiled.

“It only took me 10 years to understand that. I was fortunate.”

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Does she miss athletic competition?

She shook her head vigorously.

“This is a lot more fun than the Olympics,” she said. “When you get an opportunity once every four years to prove yourself, and you have to do what you can on this 4-inch piece of apparatus, it is pressured, it’s exciting, it’s anxious and there’s a sigh of relief when it’s over, especially if you’ve done well.

“I try to make the show as perfect as I can, but here it’s not about being perfect as gymnastics is. It’s about reaching out to the audience and holding them in the palm of your hand. You’re trying to have a good time with it.

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“The closest parallel to the Olympics is opening night, because you have the critics there and you’re self-critical instead of just letting go.”

Still, she said, she is not worried about this particular opening night.

“I feel confident now. I’ve done this too many times not to feel confident. I know that sounds like Peter Pan saying, ‘I’m pleased with myself,’ but I’ve just gotten to that point where I know what the reaction will be.”

Rigby hesitated for just a moment, her brown eyes blinking as if unsure whether she should apologize for being so pleased with herself.

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“I love that feeling,” she said, breaking into a grin, and looking like Peter Pan.


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