January 24, 1968: The birthday of one of America’s Olympic legends. Mary Lou Retton was the first U.S. woman ever to win the gymnastics all-round gold medal at the Olympics when she topped the podium at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Retton, a sophomore in high school at the time, also won two silvers and two bronzes that year. As a result, she was nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart” and was the first female ever to be featured on a Wheaties box. Retton became one of the country’s most popular athletes of the 1980’s.
Watching the 1976 Montreal Games as an eight-year-old, Retton was inspired by Romania’s Nadia Comaneci, the first athlete to earn a perfect 10.0 at the Olympics. Comaneci was coached by Bela and Marta Karolyi, who later defected to the U.S. When Retton began training under the tutelage of the Karolyis, her career took off. It looked like the sky was the limit after she won the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials. But five weeks before the Summer Games, Retton’s knee locked up, and she had to undergo surgery.
Nevertheless, Retton was able to recover in time for the L.A. Olympics (which had been boycotted by most Soviet bloc nations). In the all-around, she trailed Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo by 15-hundredths of a point with two events to go. It was then that Retton strung together perfect 10.0 scores on floor exercise and vault, two competitions that had threatened to put her recently-healed knee to the test.
In beating Szabo by five-hundredths of a point, Retton became not only the first American woman to win the all-around, but also the first one from outside Eastern Europe to do it. It would be 20 years before another U.S. gymnast would reach the podium’s top step in all-around when Carly Patterson did it in 2004. But Patterson began a streak of five straight American gold medalists that is still active today, as she was followed by Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and Suni Lee. Retton was the trail blazer, though. Mary Lou Retton…55 years old today.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)