They come into our lives every four years, darling pixies in red, white and blue, with glamour and grit to match. They are talented and tested beyond their years, and we remember their smiles and their names as if they're still on our TV screens – Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Carly Patterson, Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Kerri Strug.
It's hard to imagine an Olympic summer without a beloved American female gymnast. But there was a time when such a thing didn't exist – a time before the Wheaties boxes and the late-night talk circuits. There was a time when American women didn't have a shot at gymnastics gold.
There was a moment when all that changed forever, and that moment – when Mary Lou Retton stood at the beginning of a long runway to a waiting vault – was highly precarious.
She almost didn't make it to the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Retton had a knee operation only a few weeks before, and arthroscopic surgery wasn't as routine as it is now. "She was terrified she would miss the Olympic Games," says John Powers, who co-authored Retton's book, Mary Lou: Creating An Olympic Champion. "Her knee had locked up that year. Just to be at the Games at the beginning was a personal triumph for her."
Even when she did make it, there was plenty to be fretful about. Women's gymnastics had always been owned by the Eastern Europeans, and although the Soviets boycotted those Games and gave the Americans an advantage in pretty much every other major sport, the Romanians – specifically Ecaterina Szabo – were in L.A. with plans for gold. Remember: Although it had been eight years since Nadia Comăneci wowed the world in Montreal, the Americans boycotted the '80 Games, so this was the first post-Nadia Olympiad for the U.S. audience. And the rest of the world anticipated not the next great American, but the next great Eastern European.
"The Romanians defied the Soviets and came," says Powers. "If they hadn't done that, [Retton's] triumph would not have been nearly as important."
No female outside Europe had ever won all-around gold.
Szabo looked every bit the favorite at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, doing well enough to force Retton to nail her vault after a perfect floor routine – rehabbed knee and all – in order to finish first overall. When Retton placed her feet together and lifted her head to look at the powder-caked vault, she knew there would be no margin for error. "They wondered how she was going to do it," says Lesley Visser, who covered the event for the Boston Globe. "How could she land the landing?"
Retton would have two chances, but it felt like there was just one shot.
For years after, and even now, the world remembers the ecstatic smile. But as Retton prepared for her sprint toward destiny, there was a look most have forgotten. Her eyes were moist and her jaw was set. She was not a Madison Avenue starlet but the daughter of a West Virginia small-business owner who made his living in the rarely stable coal industry. Mary Lou was tough and gritty and brave – courageous enough to move from her Fairmont home to Houston to work with Bela Karolyi, who trained Comaneci and then defected to the U.S. Moves are fairly normal these days, but it wasn't typical back when Americans couldn't even imagine becoming famous for gymnastics. This was before ESPN was ESPN, when baseball writers covered gymnastics. The idea that Retton would be the most popular female in America nearly 10 years after that night was preposterous.
"She wasn't long and leggy and lithe," says Powers. "Mary Lou looked like the girl next door."
And now the girl next door began to run, her short-cut hair bouncing ever so slightly as she went.
Then, the smile.
She knew. Pretty much everyone in the building knew. But still there was uncertainty, simply because it had never been done before. Was an American really going to win the all-around gold for the first time ever? Even with Szabo performing so well?
The vault looked like a 10, felt like a 10, but it's gymnastics. It's Szabo and Romania and history …
"She needed a 10," says Visser. "Everybody in the building gave her a 10. People were chanting: '10, 10, 10.' "
The scoreboard flashed:
Mary Lou beamed – an icon was born – but she was also overwhelmed. She got emotional, almost unsure whether to wave, jump, clap or cry. All the energy she put into that flying leap suddenly had nowhere to go.
And then came another moment, one that would also be somewhat lost over time: Almost as soon as Retton had clinched the gold, she was off and running again, sprinting toward the vault. "She was zero to 60 in two seconds," says Powers. The TV announcer didn't even have a chance to say what she was doing until Retton was in full stride. She had one more vault, one that she didn't even have to take, but there she went, the blur again.
Retton seemed to fly even farther this time, the power and joy radiating everywhere. She stuck this vault, too, and smiled and clapped and waved as the entire place erupted. We had just met this teenage wonder, and now we were saying goodbye. The moment, less than two minutes total, was gone. That was Retton's last Olympic event.
And yet the replay is as fresh now as her grin. Retton is still a model for everything Americans look for in an Olympic hero. She's sweet, humble, genuine. Yet there's that West Virginia side, tireless and tough. Many would try to be Mary Lou Retton over the Olympiads to come, but few if any would match her. Two American women have won all-around individual gold since – Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin – but Mary Lou will forever remain the first.
No one won more medals than Retton's five in the '84 Games, which is remembered for Carl Lewis and Greg Louganis as well as the girl from West Virginia. But it's fair to say her legacy is greatest from those Olympics. Women athletes weren't often made into celebrities back then, and certainly not gymnasts. Sure there was Chris Evert and Tracy Austin, but Retton was a combination of femininity, nerve, heart and power that set the stage for a transformation in what Americans worship in women athletes.
We were so surprised, so overwhelmed by that vault. But now we expect something similar every four years, including this one. And modern women gymnasts expect it from themselves, which can lead to devastation if there's a miscue or a slip. "An American generation of girls saw what happened and wanted to be like her," says Powers. They still do, even though they can't be like her. Not quite.
Mary Lou looks so carefree in the still photos, but the wonder of that moment, watching it again, is how much intensity there was in just that run, jump, flip, twist and land. The concentration and precision is extraordinary in retrospect. Retton didn't look past that stationary vault, and America didn't look farther than the mat where she stuck her landing. Today, in 2012, there are riches and fame and celebrity waiting on the other side.
But for Mary Lou Retton, age 16, there was only perfection.
Other Summer Olympic Memorable Moments on Yahoo! Sports:
• Memorable Moments: Decker and Budd linked together forever in the ultimate agony of defeat
• Memorable Moments: Nadia Comăneci didn't think she was perfect, even if '10s' proved otherwise
• Memorable Moments: Marion Jones: Triumph and tragedy