For two weeks in 1984, she was America's Sweetest Heart, everybody's kid sister. She didn't look as if she should be playing with dolls, she looked as if she was one, as if she came to the competition in a pram and bonnet.
The Olympic gymnastic competition was a doll's house come to life, and Mary Lou Retton was the most adorable of the lot. Dimpled smile, flashing black eyes, even white teeth, part tomboy, part glamour girl, you didn't know whether to buy her a lollipop or a corsage. Not since Shirley Temple danced down the stairs with Bojangles had any moppet so captured the affection and attention of the American public.
Wrapped in a red, white and blue, star-studded leotard, she twirled, strutted, flung, twisted and flipped her 90-pound body through such a series of gravity-defying maneuvers that she became the first American girl ever to win a gold medal in her sport.
It was a heady moment.
But what nobody knew at the time was that, only five weeks before, Mary Lou Retton was not sure whether she'd be on the uneven bars--or crutches.
On the eve of the greatest event of her life, Mary Lou was sitting, cross-legged, at a gymnastics camp seminar in Louisville, signing autographs. When she tried to get up, her left leg wouldn't cooperate. It was locked at the knee.
The doctors were not completely discouraging. When Mary Lou wanted to know if she could be ready for the Olympics, they wanted to know, "Which Olympics?"
Recalls Mary Lou: "I was hysterical. A little over a month before the Olympics and I couldn't walk. The doctor said, 'You have to have surgery.' I said, 'You don't understand. I can't. I'm America's best hope for the Olympics next month. Can't you just put some ice on it and let me go?' "
The doctors allowed as how that would cool it, all right, but if she wanted to do things like walk and jump on it, they would have to put knives on it. A piece of cartilage had broken off and lodged in the knee joint.
You cannot win a gold medal with a limp. So, the hospital in Louisville summoned a jet, which flew Mary Lou to Richmond for arthroscopic repair.
"You can imagine my frame of mind," she says. "I had worked 11 years for this moment and now I thought I was going to have to go to the Olympic Games in a cast."
The 'scope surgery saved her. The next day, she was back in a gym. Not on a bar or a beam but on a bicycle.
"I sat on it and cried," she recalls. "I was in the best shape of my life and I have to learn to walk again."
It was as if the glass slipper suddenly didn't fit Cinderella. Mary Lou Retton had come a long hard way to that moment. She was not exactly a coal miner's daughter, but the Retton family had been down in the mines in the past.
She came from a small town in West Virginia, which nobody ever thought of as a hotbed of international gymnasts. But she came from an athletic family. Dad, Ronnie Retton, had been a 5-foot 7-inch guard on the basketball team at the University of West Virginia. If you never heard of him that's because the other guard, the one with the ball, was a fellow named Jerry West. And the fellow before him was one named Rod Hundley.
The Lakers passed on Ronnie Retton, who became a baseball player in the Yankee chain. But Ronnie's daughter, Mary Lou, became the second-most, maybe even first, famous athlete in West Virginia history.
Mary Lou's test was not her Olympic competition. That was a piece of cake. Her test was in rehabilitating that knee in Houston the few weeks left before the Olympics.
"I did three months' rehabilitation in 3 weeks," she says. "It hurt. Oh, how it hurt! It hurt just to walk. But I had to do it."
The Mary Lou Retton story would not be complete without a low bow to Bela Karolyi. Karolyi is gymnastic's Pygmalion. It was he who produced the Nadia Comaneci saga, which dazzled the Montreal Olympics with the sport's first 10s.
A Transylvanian who looks and sounds like something that might sleep in a coffin or turn into a bat by midnight, Karolyi spotted Mary Lou in a meet at Salt Lake City in 1982 and knew he had found his new Nadia.
"I can make you a champion," he told her.
Mary Lou thought she already was one but she talked her family into letting her go to Karolyi's school in Houston.
"Just don't let him bite you in the neck," was their parting shot.
Karolyi did everything but. He shouted, bullied, stared, sulked. Part Svengali, part Lombardi, he coaxed performances out of Mary Lou the way you coax plowing out of an ox.
"I had been the best gymnast in a 3-state area," Mary Lou recalls. "All of a sudden, I wasn't the best gymnast in the gym."
By the time Count Dracula got through with her, though, she was the best in the world.
After her stunning triumph in the Olympics, Mary Lou's siblings--third-generation West Virginians of Italian heritage--thought their little sister, the youngest of five children, was going to come home and just be a Fairmont West High sophomore again.
American commerce had other ideas. Mary Lou was needed to move cartons of breakfast cereal, flashlight batteries, cosmetics, jogging shoes, bowling supplies and charitable fund drives.
Now a student at the University of Texas, Mary Lou is currently hostess for the Vidal Sassoon gymnastic summit between the USSR and the USA at Pauley Pavilion on Sunday, April 24. The Russians, of course, weren't there in 1984. That's sad.
Mary Lou Retton almost wasn't, either, and that would have been sadder.