And, sure enough, Retton began her floor routine with a stunning high double-back somersault in the layout position, a stunt beyond the reach of all other women gymnasts, while judges and everybody on the floor tilted back to look upward at her. The effect was like watching a knife thrown at some faraway target. She followed that up with three different versions of double-backs to a dismount that shook the spring-loaded floor. A routine that strong could only have drawn a 10. It did, of course. Not far off, Szabo's two vaults earned her a 9.90. Szabo led Retton 69.225-69.175, and the stage was set for the showdown.
One is cautious about saying that the next few moments were transcendent lest one lose one's rating as a certified cynic; perhaps a look at the scores tells it better. Szabo was on the uneven bars, where she assuredly is no slouch, having won that event at last year's European championships. The crowd, sensing crisis, started applauding insanely about the time Retton took one last look at Karolyi, then squared her shoulders and put her head down. She quickly glanced sideways at Szabo on the uneven bars. "I could see she was doing well," Retton said. But coming up was Retton's own special version of the Tsukahara, the Sook, a layout back somersault with a double twist. No other woman can do it; most men won't try. And away she went.
"I knew I had it," she exulted later. "Listen: I knew by my run that I had it. I knew it when I was in the air!"
And also when she landed perfectly. She stood there for a moment, arms upraised, and then she jumped up and down, up and down, clenched fists overhead. Over the railing came Karolyi to sweep her up in a bear hug. Over came Peters to chase Karolyi away. "My God, he'd just violated some Olympic rule about unauthorized people on the floor," Peters would say, "and we didn't want to get her disqualified at a time like that." The noise swelled on all sides; it continued through the flashing of Szabo's 9.90. Finally there it was for all to cheer: a 10. The scores were 79.175 for Retton, 79.125 for Szabo—a .05 Retton victory—and 78.675 for Pauca. In the bedlam, Retton made her second vault, not that it mattered. Bang: another 10. The two Romanians were now disappointed bookends on either side of the new Olympic all-around champ.
They took it badly. "I thought her jump was pretty well done," Szabo said. "She did [long pause] well." Romanian coach Adrian Goreac said, "I can't say I'm happy with the judging. Mary Lou couldn't have won outside the United States. In fact, she couldn't have won in Los Angeles if Szabo hadn't been scored too low." Then he shrugged. "But Mary Lou's vault, I liked."
Peters was distressed to hear that; Karolyi was incredulous, as expected. "He doesn't know notting!" he shouted of Goreac. "She couldn't have won here? She hasn't lost in one-and-a-half years and she couldn't win here? I tell you, Mary Lou Retton is now the most powerful woman in all gymnastics. She is a bigger champion than anybody ever before." And this, he allowed, includes his own Nadia Comaneci, whom he had pounded and molded into a world and Olympic champion. "Nadia was developing that Retton kind of style when I left her in 1981," he said. "But she never lifted up her eyes. Mary Lou is much more liberal." Whatever that meant.
Then he unloaded two bombshells. One: Szabo, he said, wasn't 17 years old as listed. She was really just 15. He ought to know, he said. She was a student of his since she was five. The Romanians had advanced her age when she was 13. "In October 1981 she suddenly became 15 so she could compete as a senior," Karolyi claimed. Nobody, however, could check that charge out, the Romanians having left by the time he made it.
And two: As recently as a month ago, Retton's right knee had suddenly seized. "The reason she didn't cry at the medal ceremony tonight," Karolyi said, "was that she really cried back then, when the doctor told her she would never go to the Olympics."
All too true, Retton said. And then she grinned. "My knee wouldn't work right and I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's all over for me.' But I was flown to Richmond, Virginia for, what do you call that stuff? For arthroscopic surgery, where they snicked out some of the cartilages. And I was back in the gym the next day. And I've worked and worked since then. No way I was going to miss the Olympics."
And that included the Olympic frosting, otherwise known as the individual event championships, for still more medals. And Sunday evening, in what was really a postscript to the meet, she collected three more: silver on the vault and one bronze each for the uneven bars and floor exercise. Szabo had three golds, for the vault, beam and floor.