Ten years ago, a spunky sprite with a 1,000-watt smile and a girl-next-door name, Mary Lou Retton, vaulted from the Los Angeles Olympics across television screens into the homes of millions of Americans who fell in love with her.
Sweet 16, 4-feet-9, a red-white-and-blue, stars-and-stripes ball spinning through the air, she made an entire country cheer on Aug. 3, 1984, when she landed firmly on her feet and flung up her arms, absolutely sure of a perfect 10 that gave her the first U.S. gold ever in women’s gymnastics.
She symbolized all the joy and self-congratulatory nationalism of those Olympic Games, boycotted by most of the Soviet bloc. The gymnastics giants of Romania showed up, and Retton, the West Virginia-born student of Romanian defector Bela Karolyi, beat their best for the prestigious all-around title in the Summer Games’ most glamorous event.
“People would say, ‘Thank you, you did so much for America,”’ Retton recalled as she prepared to celebrate the anniversary of her triumph. “I guess America had a need for something to come out of those ’84 Games. It wasn’t only me. There were a lot of great stars. Those were America’s Games.”
Those were the Olympics of Carl Lewis and Evelyn Ashford and Greg Louganis, but it was Mary Lou Retton’s face on Wheaties boxes, a drop of milk so cute on her lip in the commercials, and her smile on all the magazine covers.
These days, Retton feels responsible in part for a change in attitude by budding gymnasts and their parents and coaches, many of them consumed by a greedy chase for gold to cash in on the rewards it can bring. Christy Henrich, who died recently at 22 from a long battle with anorexia nervosa and bulimia, is only the latest gymnastics victim of eating disorders in pursuit of a perfectly tiny body to go with perfect scores.
“Kids have agents now before they even make it into the teens,” Retton said. “If someone would have asked me when I was that age if you have an agent, I would have said, ‘What, a travel agent?’ I didn’t know what an agent was.
“I really don’t have an answer to that question (about eating disorders) because it never affected me. We weren’t on strict diets. We were all told to eat balanced meals. And Bela would say, ‘Don’t eat the cookies and candy bars.”’
Karolyi, joining her on a visit back to the city of their greatest success together, claimed Retton’s generation didn’t even know about eating disorders. His protest may be somewhat disingenuous, considering that several other girls he coached, including Nadia Comaneci, suffered from eating problems. But Karolyi is probably correct that the problem has gotten worse because of what he called “a desperate run for the money” since Retton competed.
“They did not have that pressure of the family chasing them desperately toward the gold, be the best, the gold, the gold,” Karolyi said. “They had no pressure from the hype, the media. Nobody hanging on. Nobody knew in 1983 Mary Lou would be one of the most visible personalities during the 1984 Olympics.
“She’s responsible for everybody chasing the ultimate dream. But for her it was the natural joy of being in that sport. She was crying, she was laughing, she was a joy. Today, you don’t see that. Now you have these girls with their frozen fish faces. My heart is breaking because that is not the sport. They should enjoy it, damn it, enjoy it. The ones who have been pushing are the parents. The damn parents are the ones who are torturing them.”
Retton nodded in agreement, “It’s true, it’s true.”
Retton hardly went into the Olympics obsessed with making money. No American gymnast had ever gotten rich off the Games. When she won the gold, she asked Karolyi if that meant she could buy new underwear because all six pairs she owned had holes in them.
“People were so grateful for Mary Lou because she represented the innocent type, what all Americans are looking after,” Karolyi said, sitting beside her as they recalled those dizzying days a decade ago.
She’s no bigger now at 26, the smile hasn’t dimmed a single watt and her popularity hasn’t waned. She married former Texas football player Shannon Kelley in 1990 and hopes to have a houseful of children someday. The rounded, baby-fat features of her teen-age years have yielded to the trim, chiseled look of a woman who still works out daily.
Her flips and somersaults are limited, though, to exhibitions and cameo acting appearances between motivational speeches for business people and school kids. In essence, she tells them what she said when she won: “Well, nobody thought it could be done. But you know what? I went and did it.”
Little did the world know, as she landed her two final faultless vaults, that she had cried so much only six weeks earlier when cartilage cracked in her right knee, locking it stiff, and a doctor told her she must have surgery and might miss the Olympics.
She kept it a secret then and has never talked about it publicly until now.
She was with teammate Julianne McNamara and Karolyi at a camp he was conducting in Louisville and had just finished an exhibition. Retton’s knee had been hurting all year, but she figured it was “a little crick” that would go away.
“I sat down Indian style at the end of the floor exercise mat and the little girls wanted some autographs, and 20, 25 minutes passed, and I went to stand up and I couldn’t,” Retton recalled, wincing once again at the memory. “My knee was actually locked crooked. I hobbled up to Bela and tapped him on the hip and I said, ‘Bela, I can’t straighten my knee.’ His eyes kind of crossed and he said, ‘You’re crazy.”
“I said, ‘Kick it, kick it,”’ Karolyi said.
He helped her back to the hotel, trying to conceal his worries from her, and told her to sleep with ice on the knee.
“But in the morning my knee was the size of a balloon,” Retton said. “He took me to the emergency room and the doctor was examining me and he just looked up and matter of fact said, ‘We’ll have to do surgery.’
“Bela and I and my parents looked at each other and said, ‘Surgery?’ We had just gotten back from the Olympic trials. I placed first place. I’m going to the Olympics, which were six weeks away, and I have to have surgery? Ohhh, my goodness. He explained it was just a piece of cartilage that had broken off over the years. Yeah, just a minor piece of cartilage.”
Karolyi wasn’t about to let just anyone cut into that golden knee.
“I started to run desperately to find somebody who I could trust,” he said, telling Retton now, for the first time, about his panic. “That fellow over there, I wanted to kill him, the one who put pressure on your knee and you were crying. I said, ‘God, get your hands off her.’ He was twisting. My heart was hurting. It was just a local orthopedi-idiot.
“At that moment, you see everything ruined. That is a desperate moment.”
Karolyi arranged to have a top orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Richard Caspari in Richmond, Va., perform the relatively new procedure of arthroscopic surgery.
“I remember him,” Karolyi said, “because ever since I am blessing his name.”
Retton left camp the next day, and at 5 a.m. the following morning she was already under the scope. That day they flew back to Houston, and she was in the gym practicing again the day afterward.
“People who knew said, ‘You are both of you crazy, you are nuts,”’ Karolyi said. But he wanted everything to seem normal. No one outside the small group in the gym and Retton’s family knew of the surgery, and it would remain a secret throughout the Games.
“I wanted to get back in the gym, shut up and don’t tell to anybody and don’t create a panic and create the rumors because that goes against you,” he said. “As soon as you’re telling anyone, you’re just cutting your own throat. Judges are underscoring you and your supporters stop having faith in you.”
Retton rode the exercise bike hard, swam and jogged in the pool of the family she lived with, and stayed away from tumbling and landing until she got clearance from her doctor.
“We did three months of rehabilitation in two weeks,” she said. “In gymnastics, we’re vaulting, we’re 10 and 11 feet up in the air, we’re coming down on our legs. I mean, to get back into that kind of shape that fast is just unheard of.
“But I remember when the doctor gave me the release, saying ‘Let’s land on it, let’s see if this knee is going to hold up.’ It was a vault with a front hand spring and, aiiii, I landed it.”
Karolyi was right under her, ready to grab her if she got hurt.
“Whooo, she flowed through that board, we don’t worry,” he said. “That was the ultimate proof. The knee holds up. At that moment we’re going to fight against the clock because there was only three weeks to go. And we knew very well you can’t count the last week because that’s just the nightmare of the last arrangement, and public workouts where nobody can see any kind of weakness in you. Nobody can sense you are in difficulty.”
The only real problem at the Olympics was that Karolyi couldn’t coach Retton during competition. Don Peters, the U.S. coach, didn’t want Karolyi around, didn’t want to yield any power or publicity to a rival coach, and didn’t trust the transplanted Transylvanian who had defected just a few years before. Karolyi got onto the floor at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion only by obtaining a credential as an equipment adjuster for AMF, though he never adjusted anything. Instead he skulked around behind the barriers, communicating with Retton via hand signals and facial expressions.
“I was constantly searching for him,” Retton said. “I was like, ‘Where is he, where is he?’ And he’s like an animal, he’s everywhere, you can’t ever catch up with him. He’s popping up and down. But, by God, he was there every time it was my turn to go up. Every time I would get the green light from the judge, I had to find him and get that last glimpse of his pumping fist or that nod. And if Bela said you’re ready, you’re ready. Yeah, I needed that. I don’t know if it was a security reason, because I was prepared physically. But when you’re at the Olympics, it’s all a mental game.”
The all-around came down to the last event, Romania’s implacable, 17-year-old Ecaterina Szabo leading Retton 69.225 to 69.175. Retton would need perfection on the vault, Szabo anything less than that on the uneven bars.
“Bela always taught us not to look at opponents because you can’t do anything about it, just let them do their own and you do yourself, but yeah, I was watching her bar routine,” Retton said. “The bar was her weakest, the vault was my best. She did a clean routine, no big breaks. But she had one big step in the dismount that they had to take off a tenth, and that’s when Bela went ‘Ohhh-Kayyy,’ really loud and that’s when it started. That’s when he came over.
“I’ve watched the tape all the time because I show it before my motivational presentation, and Bela is making me a nervous wreck. He’s talking constantly, ‘Now or never, this is it, you’ve got it, I want to see you now, see what you can do.’ God, he knew me so well, because I work so much better under pressure. If I’ve gotta do it, I’m gonna do it, and he knew that. So he’s feeding me and he said, ‘That’s it, let’s do it, now or never.”’
Retton got the green light and took her position down the runway without betraying any nervousness. Karolyi’s heart was thumping.
“He told me to go flat onto the horse, which would give me the height to go up, and I knew I had it when I was in the air and I was doing the twist and I opened up,” she said. “I could always tell if I’m going to get the landing or not, and I knew. So, y’all didn’t see it, but I was smiling in the air.
“And when I landed, the noise went up and Bela jumped over the fence and Pauley Pavilion was going nuts. And it seemed like an hour before they flashed the score of 10 and, yeah, I had stuck it. I had scored 10s on my vault many times in other competitions. So I knew I was capable of doing it. But they still had to flash the score. And it seemed like an eternity.”
Retton could have walked away on air at that point, gold in hand, the way Carl Lewis did without taking another shot at 30 feet in the long jump. But that wasn’t the way Retton or Karolyi wanted to go out.
“I mean, it was the Olympics, I’d been through so much to get there, I said, ‘By God, let’s do it again.”’
“That was more prestigious to me, the second vault, than even the first,” Karolyi said. “Usually the second vault is a better vault. If you are doing a vault which is questionable, you are capable to do a second vault a little better because you are experienced with the landing, you’re a little more adjusted with that one and the second vault is a routine vault. But, prior to this performance, I never in 35 years seen one gymnast managed to do a second perfect vault after a perfect vault, or the vault which made her a winner. Y’know, there’s totally a mental drop--'The world is mine, I don’t care.’ That’s what we always fought against.
“Now, I tell her, ‘You care till then because that’s the pure sport, that’s what you love, let’s honor yourself, do it for everybody who loves, do it one more time. And that exactly came out.”
One perfect 10 for gold, another for love.
“That’s exactly right,” Retton said. “In honor of the sport, and how much we had been through just in those past five weeks to get there, and I’m going to do it all. And that’s something he totally instilled in all his students: You fight until the end.”
And even as the 10 flashed again and cheers erupted and the cameras clicked around her, she still couldn’t quite believe it was all real.
“I slept with my medal under my bed that night,” Retton said. “The first thing when I got up in the morning I checked to see if it wasn’t a dream.”