Rigby Helped Change Balance of Power
Before Olga Korbut dazzled the world at the 1972 Munich Olympics, another pigtailed pixie introduced U.S. audiences to the power and beauty of gymnastics.
Cathy Rigby, who grew up in Los Alamitos, was the youngest member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team at 15. She placed 16th in the all-around competition, the best finish by a U.S. woman to that point, and in 1970 became the first female U.S. gymnast to win an individual medal at the World Championships when she won silver on the balance beam.
Although she didn’t win a medal at Munich--she was 10th in the all-around and the U.S. women’s team finished a best-ever fourth--Rigby put in place the foundation for the gymnastics boom triggered by Korbut.
“I think I pioneered it,” she said recently. “Being the first to do something is an accomplishment people remember, and there were only three TV networks, so a lot of people would watch [gymnastics] every weekend.
“I’m really thrilled with how it all turned out.”
An active child, Rigby tried gymnastics at a Lakewood gym and knew she had found her niche. Under the guidance of Bud Marquette of the Southern California Acro Team (SCATS), Rigby progressed rapidly and made the U.S. team for the 1968 Mexico City Games, winning acclaim if not a medal.
After her success at the 1970 World Championships, she was touted as a potential medalist at Munich. She fell short, but she doesn’t consider it a disappointment.
“Not at all,” she said. “We all hit our rotations. And there’s the political side of a subjective sport like gymnastics, if you’re one of the countries considered a contender for medals on a consistent basis, like Russia or Czechoslovakia. The U.S. wasn’t considered one of those countries then.
“There are so many variables--when you’re up, the group you’re in. If you’re in the second group, the judges need room to go up. They’re not going to give you a great score if you’re up early because they want to leave room in case someone has an incredible routine later. We went up at 8 o’clock in the morning one day, right before the best group went up. That’s not sour grapes and that doesn’t mean that’s why we didn’t win a medal, but we were at a disadvantage.
“The head judge was from Hungary, and Hungary was third and the U.S. was fourth as a team. Your goal at the Olympics, I always felt, is, ‘I don’t want to blow it. I can’t control the scores but you can do your best.’ Everybody hit. To place in the top 10 in the world was great.”
After Munich, Rigby became a TV commentator and worked diligently to earn respect as an actress. She has become her generation’s “Peter Pan,” having played the role more than 2,500 times on Broadway, where she earned a Tony Award nomination, and in national and regional productions. Rigby, who will be 50 in December, is also an advocate for education about eating disorders. She endured a 12-year battle with bulimia, during which she was hospitalized twice.