Time can't tarnish her golden moment

Mary Lou Retton is 36 now, but she's ageless in the minds of those who saw her in the Olympics 20 years ago.

Athens Olympics

10 Days To Go

Aug. 13 - 29

August 03, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Mary Lou Retton is antsy. The trademark million-watt smile snaps off as if controlled by an invisible switch. She is giving orders.

"No, not five minutes, three. And we'll walk," she says to a reporter seeking an interview.

"No, I'm not going in there. I've seen it," she says to a temporary assistant who is trying to get her into a quiet, air-conditioned room at Baltimore's Gerstung Center, away from the noise of a hundred rambunctious gymnastics campers and the humidity of a summer day.

"Where's my car? Why did you bring me this way?" she grills one of the people trailing behind her. "It's time to go. I have to go."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Sports section about gymnast Mary Lou Retton misstated the year that Olga Korbut's Olympic performance kindled interest in gymnastics. The year was 1972. Also, three of the photo captions accompanying the article misstated the timing of Retton's visit to Baltimore, which occurred July 23.

Yes, Mary Lou Retton - America's Sweetheart, the athlete who can be identified by her first name alone, the blast of energy who turned millions of little girls into gymnasts with her gold-medal performance in the 1984 Summer Games - is not to be trifled with this day.

She is no cardboard cutout, no cartoon character to be used as a prop or posed this way and that. She is away from her family on a pre-Olympic promotional tour, and every hour apart is agonizing. This day, she has one more appearance in Baltimore - a meet and greet at a Camden Yards skybox. And so, it seems, she is itching to wrap up loose ends before flying back to Texas.

Retton is the Olympic gymnast everyone wants to meet. Not Olga Korbut, the Soviet pixie who started the women's gymnastics craze in 1976. Not Shannon Miller, the workhorse of the 1992 and 1996 Games who won more medals than Retton did. Not Kerri Strug, the girl remembered for a heroic vault on a bad ankle in 1996 as part of the "Magnificent 7" gold-medal squad.

Retton doesn't shirk that responsibility, but she parcels out her time when she talks to business people, gives pep talks to young gymnasts and relives her golden moment now 20 years removed.

There are limits. She won't spend more than one night at a time away from home, which means she won't be going to the Athens Olympics this month to work again for NBC.

"That's a six-week commitment," she says, seeming to count the days on a mental calendar. "Too much."

Retton is 36 and the mother of four girls: Shayla, 9; McKenna, 7; Skyla, 3; and Emma, 2. She's still disgustingly trim, not a gram of fat clinging to her 4-foot-9 frame. And, as she proves this day in the gym in Baltimore, she can still string together four tumbling moves that make up one-quarter of a floor exercise routine.

"I'm going to feel this in the morning," she says after completing a no-hands cartwheel, a round-off, a back handspring and a back tuck, sticking the landing with nary a wiggle of her size-3 feet.

The children at the Gerstung gym applaud but don't understand. They weren't alive when Retton made America hers.

But the adults, they know and appreciate what they've just seen.

Finally, one little girl voices what others in the steamy gym are thinking: "You're as old as my mother."

Retton smiles, and it's hard to tell whether she's amused by the comment or simply pleased with a moment of brutal honesty amid the fawning platitudes that pave her public life.

"Out of the mouths of babes," she says later when asked about it.

It's hard to believe Retton went into the Los Angeles Games a nobody. The athletic competitions that year began amid a tit-for-tat boycott by the Soviet Union, which was retaliating for the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 competition held in Moscow.

Romanian rival

From the standpoint of solidarity, it was a smaller protest than the one four years earlier - 65 nations vs. 14. But it meant a loss of the countries responsible for 58 percent of the gold medals in 1976, the last time everyone was present.

However, powerhouse Romania was there, led by its national champion, Ecaterina "Kati" Szabo, as was China.

Retton, a 16-year-old from what she calls "a pretty poor family" in West Virginia, didn't figure to be a world beater. She had never won a major international competition, and, just weeks before the opening ceremony, she had torn cartilage in her right knee, requiring arthroscopic surgery.

"It absolutely was a blessing," she says of the anonymity. "I was the underdog. There were no expectations. It was the perfect situation to be in."

And Retton made the most of it, even though it hardly started out well.

The individual all-around final began with Retton in first place by .15 of a point over Szabo. But she had to start with her two weakest events - the beam and uneven bars.

The Romanian opened with a perfect 10 on the beam. Retton could muster only a 9.85 on the bars. Szabo came back with 9.95 in floor exercise. Retton answered weakly with a 9.80 on the beam.

But like a riverboat gambler with nerves of steel, Retton struck back in the final two events. Szabo scored 9.90 on the bars and in the vault.

Retton shaved Szabo's lead to .05 with a perfect floor exercise and then put her away with a vault without a fault.

As she landed and raised her arms in the air, "the crowd erupted," she recalls, her smile this day the same as it was on Aug. 3, 1984.

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