Mary Lou Retton
had been settled into her front-row seat for a few minutes before anyone
approached her. Sporting a new flyaway do and a deep tan, Retton looked a bit
different from her Olympic glory days, and onlookers in Indianapolis's Market
Square Arena did double takes. Suddenly a nymph in braces, strawberry blonde
curls and a blinding print shirt charged four aisles over to Retton. The girl
hugged and mugged with Mary Lou, then bounded back to her seat, where she filed
believe it's Mary Lou! Don't you think she looks good? You know where she's
been? Hawaii! I could never get a tan like that. No way. Albino City here.
She's going to do the TV. Don't you like her hair? Mine is so retarded.... It's
For all her
gushing, the gritty reporter—age 14, height 4'9", weight 78, shoe size
5—has in the past six months been doing her best to render Retton a memory.
Last March, at the tender age of 13, Kristie Phillips of Baton Rouge defeated
veteran gymnasts from 19 nations to win the American Cup in Fairfax, Va.
Return's own American Cup victory in '83 brought her to the public eye and lent
her credibility before the world's judges. Since her own Cup coup, Phillips has
been unbeatable. In June, at the meet in Indy where she spotted Retton, she won
the national junior title and might well have won the senior but for a rule
limiting senior eligibility to those 14 or older as of Jan. 1. Kristie added a
win in the Canadian Classic on June 28, then last month earned four gold
medals, including one for the all-around title, at the U.S. Olympic Festival in
Houston, where she trains.
supercharging Madison Avenue, Olympians Bart Conner and Peter Vidmar manning
microphones and Mitch Gaylord gone Hollywood, Phillips has emerged as arguably
the brightest star of U.S. gymnastics. Greg Marsden, the University of Utah's
women's coach whose teams have won six straight national titles, says,
"Without question, she shows the most promise of our gymnasts. She doesn't
just execute the routine, she performs it. She'll be at her peak in 1988."
Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, says, "We
have to look at her as our outstanding hope for 1988. At her age, she is beyond
anyone else we have ever had."
guru Bela Karolyi as her coach, Kristie has put herself on a course that
parallels Mary Lou's. Kristie even crowned her American Cup triumph
Retton-style, with a kittenish leap into Bela's burly arms. "When I met
Kristie three years ago, I saw she had a personality sort of like
mine—outgoing, a big smile," says Retton, now 18. "I said to myself.
This girl is going to make it."
At the Olympic
Festival, Kristie's polished personality was ever evident. She carried herself
with a confident arch in her back and played the pixie, flashing her baby blues
and her braces during every dismount. She meanwhile delivered with enthusiasm
the expected ingenue lines: her ambition to act instead of becoming—as she had
earlier announced—an orthodontist ("too much work"); her longing for a
sports car (a Porsche); her infatuation with teen actors Ricky Schroder and
Anthony Michael Hall, the star of Weird Science ("He has to be funny to go
through a movie with a bra on his head"): her skill with reporters
("When I was eight, I was doing interviews like this," she told The New
York Times during the festival. "And I gave some pretty good
"If you look carefully, you can see many things [in Kristie] acting just
like Mary Lou—the running and the hug. It's natural, because she likes the
public, but at the same time, she's a good student."
is more reminiscent of another Karolyi protégée's, Olympic gold medalist Nadia
Comaneci of Romania, than it is of Mary Lou's. Where Retton was, according to
Karolyi, "an exploding bullet." Kristie is a rubber arrow. Phillips
remains relatively weak on the bars, but she has long lines and a sense of
rhythm that stand her well in floor exercises, and she is a world-class
But Phillips was
built for the beam. Her upper-body strength, combined with her tremendous
lower-back flexibility, give her an astounding look. She may not have
Comaneci's perfect technique, but she has an unusually dynamic physique.
"Every now and then I have to feel to see if her backbone is there,"
says Kristie's father, Jimmy, a section supervisor at Exxon who has worked
there for 26 years. "Even in one of her first gym classes she was lying on
the floor and doing whatever it is she does now when she puts her button her
the-butt-on-the-head move. Early in her beam routine, Kristie locks her heels
and her palms to the beam so that (cereal marketers. Cheerios in particular,
take note) she forms a human O. Later Kristie goes from a handstand into a
reverse planche, which means her back begins to fold backward (aagh!) until her
noggin reaches her rear (owhh!) and her legs and torso form a horizontal
(aieee!), whose stem is parallel to the floor. And that's only the beginning.
After holding the J pose, with her eyes trained on her heels, she does a split,
fanning her legs to 180 degrees. No one else in the world does this straddle
reverse planche, destined to become known as "the Phillips."