In the summer of 1984, a brave high school sophomore with an electric smile made her way into the heart of the United States. With a 0.5 point margin of victory, Mary Lou Retton became the first American to win the all-around title in Olympic gymnastics – the first American gold medal in individual gymnastics of any kind – and left the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as a sensation.
The impact of the Fairmont, West Virginia native’s victory was almost immediate, on and off the gym mat.
The silver medal winning women’s team was celebrated at a celebration at the home of famous artist Bob Hope in Los Angeles. Retton and his teammates enjoyed a trip to Disneyland and a ticker parade in New York City with other US medal winners. She landed on the cover of a Wheaties box, the first female athlete to grace the front, and was named Sportswoman of the Year by Illustrated sports.
Most importantly, Retton made women’s gymnastics a staple on television and laid the groundwork for future American stars such as Nastia Liukin, Suni Lee, Simone Biles and others. After winning five medals in Los Angeles, Retton also took home two bronze and two silver medals, US gymnastics club registrations increased by more than 40% the following year, according to the governing body. Sport.
By the end of 1984, Retton – every 4-foot-9, 93 pounds of her – was arguably America’s most famous woman.
“It was so immediate and intensely,” said 1984 US women’s gymnastics team captain Kathy Johnson of Retton’s dramatic rise to power. “… We were in LA, after all, the entertainment capital of the world. It blew up in the biggest and most dramatic way, in part because it’s America. It just increased exponentially.
A performance for the gold medal full of drama
The 1984 Games were boycotted by the Soviet Union and several of its allies, four years after the United States and 64 other countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics. The Soviets would almost certainly have been favored for gold, but the American team intended to have their own golden moment.
“Half of our squad was from the 1980 squad that couldn’t make it – and there was such emotion and passion,” Johnson says. “Not just among the athletes, but across the country, to see the Olympics. “
Retton’s gold medal moment was full of drama. On August 3, 1984, she competed in the final night of competition leading 35 other women in the all-around gymnastics, including presumed favorite Ecaterina Szabo of Romania, who was only 0.15 points behind.
But before his last event, the vault, Retton needed a perfect score of 10 to win the gold medal. She needed to glue the landing. Retton promised her trainer, Bela Karolyi, that she would.
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Moments later, Retton took to the skies and curled up in the air, pulling off a difficult double Tsukahara, before descending for that perfect landing. For a moment, time stood still. Then “10.00” – a perfect score – flashed on the dashboard.
“We did it, Petit Corps!” Karolyi screamed as he hugged Retton after his safe. “We did it! Amazing!”
“I knew the takeoff was good,” Retton, then 16, told reporters, “and I knew the jump was good. And I knew I would hold it.”
“The greatest safe ever,” said Karolyi.
A “prodigy, a new wave in gymnastics”, the Los Angeles Times called him in the newspaper the next day.
For Valorie Kondos Field, one of America’s most successful gymnastics coaches in history, what happened after Retton’s perfect jump left her back shivering.
“When she jumped and got a 10, she didn’t have to do a second jump,” she says. “She did it because she could, and I remember then thinking, ‘This is what sport should be. It’s about playing the game. Not just to get the medal and win.
Retton still popular years after the Los Angeles Games
Before Retton, many other female athletes made a huge impact, from versatile athletes Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Althea Gibson, to tennis stars Billie Jean King and Chris Evert. But none of them became a pop culture icon like Retton.
“[She] changed the landscape not only of gymnastics, “says Johnson,” but I think women in sports. It literally took us to a whole new level.
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Years after his gold medal moment, Retton remains one of the most popular faces of the Olympics. In 1993, she was voted “America’s Most Popular Athlete” in an Associated Press poll. She performed on “Dancing With Stars” in 2018, still appears in TV commercials, and remains in demand as a motivational speaker. Every four years, it comes back to the forefront.
“She was so different from any other gymnast,” says Johnson, who won a bronze medal on balance beam at the 1984 Games. “… She was that mighty mite. Short brown hair, bouncing all over. Unique and powerful beyond words. She immediately grabbed the world’s attention and didn’t let go.
Kondos Field says Retton’s relativity is what sets her apart from other gymnasts.
“What I have found in training gymnasts like the ones that have gone viral is not the stereotypical gymnast,” she says. “These are understandable young women who excel in gymnastics. … [Retton] was muscular, she was powerful. “
And, adds Kondos Field, “she beamed from ear to ear.”