120 years, 120 stories (Part 42) : The first gymnastic gold that went outside East Europe


We did talk about famous women gymnasts like Larisa Latynina and Nadia Comaneci in earlier episodes in this series – 120 years, 120 stories. In this edition, let us take you through the feats of another such gymnastic legend who, by her own confession, was inspired by the achievements of Comaneci.

Mary Lou Retton was just 8 years old when she watched on television at her Fairmont residence, her idol and Romanian heart-throb achieving the perfect tens on the floor. And right at that moment, she discovered her gymnastic aspirations which would one day make her emulate her idol. Later on, Retton moved to Houston to undergo training from none other than Comaneci’s own coaches – Bela and Marta Karolyi – who by the time defected into the US team.

In the early days of 1980s, Retton was perceived by the national experts as the next big thing on the floor. The American sweetheart (as she is fondly called) displayed fascinating performances in the American Cup and the US Nationals in tune up to the US Olympic Trials. With most of the countries from the Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union, boycotting the Los Angeles Games held at the formers’ political and ideological adversary – the United States of America, Retton was seen as a major contender for the gymnastic events as the East European nations used to have an overwhelming monopoly on the sport during those times.

However, just before the Olympics, Retton suffered a knee injury while checking out on a floor exercise. Just five weeks prior to the Games, the American underwent an operation which put serious doubts on her Olympics aspirations.

As fortune favours the brave, Retton recovered in time and was up against her Romanian nemesis Ecaterina Szabo in the all-around event. The uneven bars and the balance beam put the Romanian on the lead. But the American made her way back by virtue of scoring perfect 10s on floor and vault – where in the latter Retton was outstanding provided she was competing with a knee that went under the knife just weeks back.

In the final standings, Retton finished 0.05 points ahead of Szabo – which was enough for her to clinch the gold medal and thus becoming the first non-East European ever to win the all-around gold. Not only did she stop there, but Retton went on to collect a couple of silver and bronze as well. While her silver medals came at the vault and the team event, she also ensured a podium finish at the bars and the floor exercise.

Retton won a total of five medals at Los Angeles – more than any athletes could ensure at the 1984 Olympics. She was named the Sportswoman of the Year by the American press. The American who improvised the move on the uneven bars called “The Retton Flip” bade adieu to the sport a year later after winning an unprecedented hat-trick of American Cups.

The American, now in her late 40s, was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997. Post her retirement, the authorities named a street and a park in her honour at her hometown. She appeared in many television shows and commercial endorsements and remained for long a popular sports figure in the USA.

Photo by margaretglin