With Retton, '84 is never too far away

Phil Jackman

October 22, 1990|By Phil Jackman

As she came through the elevator doors, you half expected the vibrant young woman to quicken her step and zoom across the hotel lobby carpet with a series of cartwheels and flips, capped by a double back somersault in the layout position.

She presented her calling card, a smile that easily filled the room and, suddenly, it didn't seem so early in the morning.

It was hi, hi, Miss American Pie herself, Mary Lou Retton, and one could not help but think back to 1984 and the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Usually, at the Olympics, the head-to-head competition remembered is big guys wrestling, lifting weights, running 100 meters or trading punches. This was Retton and Romania's Ecaterina Szabo on the gymnastics apparatus and it proved the event of the Games.

Romania had beaten the United States for the team title and, after a day's rest, the quest for the all-around individual title began, with tickets commanding at least $100 outside UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.

Even for the uninitiated, the confrontation was worth twice that much. Retton started with a slight lead but it was erased when Szabo scored a perfect 10 on the balance beam.

The rivals were not in the same rotation. Mary Lou followed behind Szabo, and she dropped to runner-up with a 9.80 beam routine. The Romanian's floor exercise was nearly flawless and the music didn't hurt either: Rhapsody in Blue, Camptown Races, Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic.

It was readily apparent this was a job for Supergirl. Retton bolted into her floor exercise as if shot from a cannon. A 10. But she still trailed by the slimmest of margins. Szabo followed up a solid 9.90 on the vaulting horse with a 9.90 on the uneven bars. Her dismount was flawed, leaving this tiny little opening that sound would have trouble slipping through.

The arena fell silent as Mary Lou readied at the end of the runway for her first vault. You've no doubt seen the replay. Up come the arms and they're pumping like pistons. The teeth are gritting, the hair is flying every which way and all the competitive juices are flowing. Another perfect score . . . and another 10 (unneeded) on her second vault.

Talk about a garrison finish! A pair of 10s and a third just for good measure with the gold medal on the line and the largest television audience of the Games looking on.

Naturally, Retton thinks back to that momentous evening often. dTC Not only with fond memories, however, but with a sense of how far her sport has come since then.

During the last six years and since she left so-called amateur competition after the American Cup of 1986, Mary Lou has seen pixies come along who match and exceed her athleticism and daring.

"The sport has changed dramatically," she said. "For instance, there's more spring and padding on the floor and they've moved the uneven bars apart so the girls are, in effect, doing a men's high bar routine.

"There's not only springs on the takeoff platform of the vault; you get spring off the horse, too. That means you can do an extra somersault, a triple."


"No, dangerous," she continued. "But it's probably the only way the sport can go. Women's gymnastics needed another stage if it was to continue attracting people's attention."

Besides, Mary Lou knows only too well that the best girls get into the game at such a young age that fear isn't much of a factor. She started at age 7 and had nine years of a 7-10:30 a.m. and 5-9 p.m. daily practice grind before reaching the top.

Still just 22 and with a couple years of college (University of Texas) out of the way, she says she still gets the "twinge" to compete every so often, "but I certainly don't miss the workouts."

That's why her current project of heading up a show called the Revco Gymnastics '90 Tour of Champions, playing the Baltimore Arena Nov. 4 (2 p.m.), works out so well.

"My workouts for this [six-city] tour go about an hour and a half or two a day," she said. "I'll do a routine until I'm satisfied with it and move on. As a kid and with a coach, we did things over and over and over. Some of my tendons and my feet just can't take it anymore."

But don't get the mistaken impression the show will be a group of has-beens staying too long at the fair. Mary Lou explains it as "past, present and future champions showing where the sport is coming from and where it's going.

"The pressure of competition isn't there, there is no judging, and everyone is free to work the routines they do best," she said. "For the kids coming along, this provides an opportunity to work a new little trick in because it won't count against them if they goof."

Besides Retton, the outstanding cast includes Cathy Rigby, Peter Vidmar, Tim Daggett and Mitch Gaylord from the past; Brandy Johnson, Lance Ringnald, Tom Schlesinger, Chelle Stack, Kevin Davis, Kelly Garrison and Phoebe Mills, Olympians in '88 and still competing; and Kim Zmeskal, Erica Stokes, Hillary Grivich and Amy Scherr, all sure shots to represent the United States in Barcelona.

Two nights after her Olympic all-around victory, stamping her as the best in the world, Mary Lou checked back for a silver medal in the vault and bronze medals in the uneven bars and floor exercise. Five medals, including a team silver, she walked away with, and a lot of hearts went with her, too.

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