When Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci was performing in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and scoring tens … after tens …after tens, an eight-year-old American girl, was watching on television.
After the Games, the girl, Mary Lou Retton, persuaded her mother to take her to gymnastics classes. Before long, Mary Lou was winning every contest she entered. Her parents were told her potentials were boundless.
They brought her to Houston, Texas where coach Bela Karolyi, a Romanian who defected to the U.S. a few years earlier had set up gymnastics camp. Karolyi’s most famous pupil before leaving Romania is Comaneci.
Eight years and two Olympic Games later in Los Angeles, the girl stood focused on the sidehorse at the other end of the matted runway, competing in the sport of her choice that demanded perfection. She was eyeing for her first Olympic gold medal.
A year earlier, Mary Lou failed to make it to the 1983 World Championships because of an injured wrist. And six weeks before the LA Games, she had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips.
Earlier in the competition, Romania beat the U.S. for the gold medal in the women’s team event. Mary Lou though led Romania’s Szabo in the individual race on the strength of competition rule carrying over the individual scores from the team championship. Mafy Lou was up in first place by mere fifteen hundredths of a point.
In the battle for the individual all around, Retton and Szabo were competing in different groups and, therefore, performing on different apparatus at the same time.
After two of the last four apparatus, balance beam, were Szabo scored a perfect 10 and the uneven bars where Mary Lou did not fare enough to remain on top, the two were tied for the lead.
Szabo was almost perfect with 9.95 in floor exercise to Retton’s 9.80 in balance beam to seize the upper hand by fifteen hundredths of a point. On her third apparatus, Szabo got 9.90 but it was Mary Lou who made a 10 in her floor exercise routine. With only one apparatus left, the American still trailed by five hundredths of a point.
Szabo completed her routine with 9.90 in uneven bars, as Retton was to step up for her last appearance in her favorite vault. The situation was so tense for Retton, who needed to score a perfect 10 to go home with the gold. A 9.95 would tie her with the Romanian and they will end up sharing all the marbles. Anything less, she loses.
“You’re going to do it … you’re going to do it!” was Karolyi’s last instruction to her pupil. ‘I know you can do it, the best you can vault. I know you can do it … Now or never, OK?”
Mary Lou, who appeared much, much calmer than her coach responded with a smile,” OK,” as she moved to the mat.
The 13,000 crowd that filled he Pauley Pavilion at the L.A. Olympics was deadly silent as the 16-year-old, 4-foot- 9,” 92-pound Mary Lou approached that apparatus, running, She hit the “horse” strongly with both hands, twirled through the air and “stuck” her landing.
The crowd roared hysterically, but Karolyi’s screaming could be heard over the incredibly loud noise. “Ten … ten … ten … “
It took thirty seconds before Mary Lou’s results were flashed on the giant scoreboard. The coach was right, Mary Lou scored a perfect “10” and was declared an Olympic champion —the first American gymnast to ever ton win the overall title.
There was one cosmic moment that followed. Competition rules give contestant two attempts in vault with the highest mark to be counted. With victory assured after her first try, Mary Lou Retton didn’t have to make a second attempt. She did anyway. And the second result was the same … a perfect 10!