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The Perfect 10 : Little did the world know that Mary Lou Retton had undergone arthriscopic knee surgery only six weeks before winning the gymnastics all-around gold medal in the '84 Olympics.

August 07, 1994|STEVE WILSTEIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

She was with teammate Julianne McNamara and Karolyi at a camp he was conducting in Louisville and had just finished an exhibition. Retton's knee had been hurting all year, but she figured it was "a little crick" that would go away.

"I sat down Indian style at the end of the floor exercise mat and the little girls wanted some autographs, and 20, 25 minutes passed, and I went to stand up and I couldn't," Retton recalled, wincing once again at the memory. "My knee was actually locked crooked. I hobbled up to Bela and tapped him on the hip and I said, 'Bela, I can't straighten my knee.' His eyes kind of crossed and he said, 'You're crazy."

"I said, 'Kick it, kick it,"' Karolyi said.

He helped her back to the hotel, trying to conceal his worries from her, and told her to sleep with ice on the knee.

"But in the morning my knee was the size of a balloon," Retton said. "He took me to the emergency room and the doctor was examining me and he just looked up and matter of fact said, 'We'll have to do surgery.'

"Bela and I and my parents looked at each other and said, 'Surgery?' We had just gotten back from the Olympic trials. I placed first place. I'm going to the Olympics, which were six weeks away, and I have to have surgery? Ohhh, my goodness. He explained it was just a piece of cartilage that had broken off over the years. Yeah, just a minor piece of cartilage."

Karolyi wasn't about to let just anyone cut into that golden knee.

"I started to run desperately to find somebody who I could trust," he said, telling Retton now, for the first time, about his panic. "That fellow over there, I wanted to kill him, the one who put pressure on your knee and you were crying. I said, 'God, get your hands off her.' He was twisting. My heart was hurting. It was just a local orthopedi-idiot.

"At that moment, you see everything ruined. That is a desperate moment."

Karolyi arranged to have a top orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Richard Caspari in Richmond, Va., perform the relatively new procedure of arthroscopic surgery.

"I remember him," Karolyi said, "because ever since I am blessing his name."

Retton left camp the next day, and at 5 a.m. the following morning she was already under the scope. That day they flew back to Houston, and she was in the gym practicing again the day afterward.

"People who knew said, 'You are both of you crazy, you are nuts,"' Karolyi said. But he wanted everything to seem normal. No one outside the small group in the gym and Retton's family knew of the surgery, and it would remain a secret throughout the Games.

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"I wanted to get back in the gym, shut up and don't tell to anybody and don't create a panic and create the rumors because that goes against you," he said. "As soon as you're telling anyone, you're just cutting your own throat. Judges are underscoring you and your supporters stop having faith in you."

Retton rode the exercise bike hard, swam and jogged in the pool of the family she lived with, and stayed away from tumbling and landing until she got clearance from her doctor.

"We did three months of rehabilitation in two weeks," she said. "In gymnastics, we're vaulting, we're 10 and 11 feet up in the air, we're coming down on our legs. I mean, to get back into that kind of shape that fast is just unheard of.

"But I remember when the doctor gave me the release, saying 'Let's land on it, let's see if this knee is going to hold up.' It was a vault with a front hand spring and, aiiii, I landed it."

Karolyi was right under her, ready to grab her if she got hurt.

"Whooo, she flowed through that board, we don't worry," he said. "That was the ultimate proof. The knee holds up. At that moment we're going to fight against the clock because there was only three weeks to go. And we knew very well you can't count the last week because that's just the nightmare of the last arrangement, and public workouts where nobody can see any kind of weakness in you. Nobody can sense you are in difficulty."

The only real problem at the Olympics was that Karolyi couldn't coach Retton during competition. Don Peters, the U.S. coach, didn't want Karolyi around, didn't want to yield any power or publicity to a rival coach, and didn't trust the transplanted Transylvanian who had defected just a few years before. Karolyi got onto the floor at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion only by obtaining a credential as an equipment adjuster for AMF, though he never adjusted anything. Instead he skulked around behind the barriers, communicating with Retton via hand signals and facial expressions.

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