When a big-eyed sprite named Marcia Frederick stepped out to perform at the world gymnastics championships in Strasbourg, France in October, the arena all but crackled with anticipation. Which seemed strange, since her name was not Olga, after all, nor Nadia nor Ludmilla. This was only Marcia's second international competition and she came from Springfield, Mass. in the U.S.A., which has never rivaled the U.S.S.R. or Romania in the production of world-class gymnasts. But the event was the uneven parallel bars, and on the basis of this 15-year-old's performance the day before, some of the gathered experts were already calling her bars routine the most extraordinary that has ever been executed. No one wanted to miss her final.
As the green light flashed, she grabbed the low bar and thrust to a handstand on the one above; few could believe what followed. She arrowed her legs back to a pike position and dived around the bar in something known to gymnasts as a Stalder shoot. Just before completing her circle, she twirled in a full pirouette, perpendicular to the bar, grabbing and letting go with her hands as she went. The two maneuvers, the Stalder and the pirouette, took barely a second, but it was the only such second in history; no woman had ever combined the two moves.
The remaining 20 seconds of Frederick's masterwork were merely superb. Only her dismount was less than perfection, perhaps because of a weak left ankle, sprained three times since August. A score of 9.95 went up, and by day's end it had not been surpassed. Marcia had a gold medal, the first ever for an American woman in world gymnastic competition. Even the Russian sportswriters were moved to comment that Frederick had "truly won," that, indeed, she had "approached perfection."
Her routine over, Frederick sat on the floor and waited for competition to continue. Still to come was defending world uneven champion Nadia Comaneci. Comaneci had scored a perfect 10 at Montreal, but on the previous day, during the individual combined exercises event at Strasbourg, she had fallen during her routine and was given a 9.25. Now she came sauntering toward Frederick, and as she passed she wet her hands from a water bottle and flicked a shower of drops in her new rival's face. "Was that intentional?" someone asked Frederick. "Could be," she replied, and watched, a big grin on her face, as Comaneci scored a 9.85.
But when a friend said later, "How great! We finally won a gold!" Frederick replied, "Yeah. Now I've only got three to go." She had failed to qualify for the finals in floor exercise, balance beam and vaulting. Though the bad ankle had meant that for five weeks before the championships she had been able to do no floor exercise, limited beam work and only a few vaults, she seemed more than disappointed with herself when she said, "This was a good start, but I want to be an all-around champion."
Then she went off to place an overseas call to her family. When she finally got through, her father said, "Hi, Marce, how are you?"
"Pretty good," she said.
"Have a good day?"
"What do you mean, 'Pretty good'? You competed today, didn't you?"