As the 4-foot-9, 94-pound gymnast stood poised at the edge of the mat, she knew that only perfection would bring her the gold medal. Moments earlier, her Romanian coach, Bela Karolyi, had whispered tensely in her ear, “I know you can do it. The best you can vault. Now or never.”
“OK,” she replied calmly, flashing the wide smile that soon would light up America and thousands of cereal boxes.
As the gymnast started her vault, she told herself, “This is the Olympics this is what you came here to do.” And then Mary Lou Retton was off, soaring into sporting history on her golden evening of Aug. 3, 1984.
She hit the pommel horse strongly with both hands, twirled back and forth in midair and stuck her landing. The crowd of 9,023 at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion erupted, and above the din Karolyi could be heard screaming, “Ten! … ten! … ten!”
It took 30 interminable seconds before the judges agreed and made the stocky 16-year-old from Fairmont, W.Va., the first American woman to win an individual gymnastics gold medal in the Olympics.
The impact was felt almost immediately. Around the United States, thousands of little girls enrolled in classes as the sport boomed. Seventeen years ago, there weren’t all that many female sports heroes, and Mary Lou Retton’s dazzling success sparked interest by girls and women in many other sports as well.
Retton entered the final evening of women’s all-around competition leading 35 rivals with her score of 39.525 from the team events. But going into the vault, she had fallen behind Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo by 0.5 of a point. If the American scored a 9.95, she would tie Szabo for the gold. A perfect 10 was needed to win outright.
And she was perfect.
“There are two ways to get a 10,” U.S. coach Don Peters explained. “One is to perform a routine perfectly. The other is to be so much better than anyone else that if the judges gave someone else a 9.9, they have to give you a 10.”
Retton finished with 79.175 points to 79.125 for Szabo, who had faltered on the uneven bars. As viewers around the world watched, the emotional Karolyi raced onto the floor and swallowed Retton in a bear hug. He might have had doubts whether she could do it. Mary Lou never did.
“I had goose bumps going up and down me,” she said. “I knew from the takeoff, I knew from the run, I just knew [that I had won].”
Her victory was a surprise to many. Before the Games, Retton was considered America’s best hope for a gymnastics medal although she had never taken part in a major international competition. Meanwhile, Szabo was the heavy favorite to take the gold.
Retton had become interested in gymnastics after watching Nadia Comaneci’s thrilling performance for Romania in the 1976 Montreal Games. She began classes, then won nearly every competition she entered. People who knew the sport told her parents that her potential was unlimited but could be tapped only by a coach such as Karolyi, who had moved to Houston after defecting from Romania.
On New Year’s Day 1983, Retton left her coal mining hometown for Houston. She returned to Fairmont for only four days between then and the start of the Los Angeles Games.
During that stretch, Retton proved tough both physically and mentally. She missed the 1983 World Championships because of a bad wrist and only six weeks before the Olympics underwent knee surgery to remove torn cartilage. Two weeks later, she was back in training.
Before Retton’s momentous, gold-winning vault, former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby told the ABC audience, “I hope she has her wings on today.”
Retton’s specialty vault was the Tsukahara, named for the Japanese gymnast who devised it. In order, she did a backward somersault, then a forward flip with a 360-degree twist before landing with both feet firmly planted.
Then Retton beamed her trademark grin. Much of America beamed with her as she began to jump up and down in excitement, each leap higher than the last.
But her evening wasn’t over. Although it wasn’t necessary to win the gold, Retton still had a second vault coming. And that one, too, was a perfect 10.