Ten years ago, a spunky sprite with a 1,000-watt smile and a girl-next-door name, Mary Lou Retton, vaulted from the Los Angeles Olympics across television screens into the homes of millions of Americans who fell in love with her.
Sweet 16, 4-feet-9, a red-white-and-blue, stars-and-stripes ball spinning through the air, she made an entire country cheer on Aug. 3, 1984, when she landed firmly on her feet and flung up her arms, absolutely sure of a perfect 10 that gave her the first U.S. gold ever in women's gymnastics.
She symbolized all the joy and self-congratulatory nationalism of those Olympic Games, boycotted by most of the Soviet bloc. The gymnastics giants of Romania showed up, and Retton, the West Virginia-born student of Romanian defector Bela Karolyi, beat their best for the prestigious all-around title in the Summer Games' most glamorous event.
"People would say, 'Thank you, you did so much for America,"' Retton recalled as she prepared to celebrate the anniversary of her triumph. "I guess America had a need for something to come out of those '84 Games. It wasn't only me. There were a lot of great stars. Those were America's Games."
Those were the Olympics of Carl Lewis and Evelyn Ashford and Greg Louganis, but it was Mary Lou Retton's face on Wheaties boxes, a drop of milk so cute on her lip in the commercials, and her smile on all the magazine covers.
These days, Retton feels responsible in part for a change in attitude by budding gymnasts and their parents and coaches, many of them consumed by a greedy chase for gold to cash in on the rewards it can bring. Christy Henrich, who died recently at 22 from a long battle with anorexia nervosa and bulimia, is only the latest gymnastics victim of eating disorders in pursuit of a perfectly tiny body to go with perfect scores.
"Kids have agents now before they even make it into the teens," Retton said. "If someone would have asked me when I was that age if you have an agent, I would have said, 'What, a travel agent?' I didn't know what an agent was.
"I really don't have an answer to that question (about eating disorders) because it never affected me. We weren't on strict diets. We were all told to eat balanced meals. And Bela would say, 'Don't eat the cookies and candy bars."'
Karolyi, joining her on a visit back to the city of their greatest success together, claimed Retton's generation didn't even know about eating disorders. His protest may be somewhat disingenuous, considering that several other girls he coached, including Nadia Comaneci, suffered from eating problems. But Karolyi is probably correct that the problem has gotten worse because of what he called "a desperate run for the money" since Retton competed.
"They did not have that pressure of the family chasing them desperately toward the gold, be the best, the gold, the gold," Karolyi said. "They had no pressure from the hype, the media. Nobody hanging on. Nobody knew in 1983 Mary Lou would be one of the most visible personalities during the 1984 Olympics.
"She's responsible for everybody chasing the ultimate dream. But for her it was the natural joy of being in that sport. She was crying, she was laughing, she was a joy. Today, you don't see that. Now you have these girls with their frozen fish faces. My heart is breaking because that is not the sport. They should enjoy it, damn it, enjoy it. The ones who have been pushing are the parents. The damn parents are the ones who are torturing them."
Retton nodded in agreement, "It's true, it's true."
Retton hardly went into the Olympics obsessed with making money. No American gymnast had ever gotten rich off the Games. When she won the gold, she asked Karolyi if that meant she could buy new underwear because all six pairs she owned had holes in them.
"People were so grateful for Mary Lou because she represented the innocent type, what all Americans are looking after," Karolyi said, sitting beside her as they recalled those dizzying days a decade ago.
She's no bigger now at 26, the smile hasn't dimmed a single watt and her popularity hasn't waned. She married former Texas football player Shannon Kelley in 1990 and hopes to have a houseful of children someday. The rounded, baby-fat features of her teen-age years have yielded to the trim, chiseled look of a woman who still works out daily.
Her flips and somersaults are limited, though, to exhibitions and cameo acting appearances between motivational speeches for business people and school kids. In essence, she tells them what she said when she won: "Well, nobody thought it could be done. But you know what? I went and did it."
Little did the world know, as she landed her two final faultless vaults, that she had cried so much only six weeks earlier when cartilage cracked in her right knee, locking it stiff, and a doctor told her she must have surgery and might miss the Olympics.
She kept it a secret then and has never talked about it publicly until now.