Performing such triumphs was hard on the nerves—of everybody but Retton. Between the compulsories and optionals, she and her pal McNamara had tooled around town in a limo with a friend, peeking out occasionally at the sights ("Big town, isn't it?"), but mostly doing their Karolyi imitations. These involved great glowerings, pulling at imaginary mustaches and throwing occasional punches. "You know what he tells us when we do something wrong?" Retton said. "He says, 'You shouldn't be doing gymnastics, you should be planting flowers.' " They collapsed into giggles over this dubious sequitur. Then they passed around candy-coated vitamin tablets and pondered the possibility of seeing Matt Dillon on the street somewhere. Retton is his biggest...no, his smallest fan.
Meanwhile, the men's events were creating tensions of their own.
At the beginning of the meet, somewhere way back, oh, a couple of Sundays ago, there had been a tendency to think of the UCLA campus as a pastel island in the Olympic stream. Lovely little place, draped in magenta, orange, green and violet bunting, its inhabitants all color-keyed right down to the judges and officials in their banana frappe blazers. Fill them up with light Bacardi and they'd become so many daiquiris. This was Gymnasticsland, home of the teeny people, and surely no athletic violence would occur here.
Oh, surely. But then, on the night of July 31, the U.S. men beat China 591.40-590.80 in the team finals, with 586.70 for Japan. Five out of the six U.S. men were in the top 10 scorers among the 81 competitors, and perhaps not until it was all over did anybody really stop to think that this was the first American gymnastics gold medal in 52 years, since the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, back when male gymnasts also climbed ropes and juggled Indian clubs.
It had started with the compulsory round, rigidly prescribed moves in the six disciplines—floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar. When they were over, there was the U.S. in the lead over China. Not much of a lead, true, 295.30-294.25. Indeed, a small-change margin like that could be eaten up in big bites during the optional, always a high-scoring circus. The Chinese weren't worried. "We're quite comfortable here," said their coach, Zhang Jian, whose impenetrable cool survived all translations. After all, this was the China that had upset the Soviets at the 1983 world championships in Budapest, where the U.S. had finished fourth behind Japan, and it was also the China of the fearsome Li Ning, the 1982 world all-around champ and now the No. 2 terror in the sport, behind Russia's Dimitri Bilozerchev. Well, ol' Dimitri wasn't around last week, and "I didn't come all this way," said Li Ning, "to fail."
The overlooked guy in this crowd was one Koji Gushiken of Japan, 27 years old and still, despite the greater esteem accorded Li, second-ranked in the world all-around. He's a professor of phys ed at Tokyo's Nippon College and owner of what has to be the alltime classic crew cut, a flat-out flattop out of the '50s.
As soon as the optionals began, the hysteria started building, as if it were being pumped in through Pauley's cooling system. Conner said later, "There we were, with the U.S. first up on the floor exercise, China on the horse—and we all looked at them and said, 'Shoot, these guys are good!' So there was nothing left to do but go after them."
About that time, Li was attacking the pommel horse so ferociously—soaring scissors kicks and one-handed flairs—you'd have thought he was trying to break its spirit, finally coming down with a 9.90, the high score for his team. A few yards away on the blue-carpeted floor, the best the U.S. could do was a pair of 9.8s from James Hartung and Peter Vidmar, with Conner about to come on as anchor man. And it was then, with everybody yowling, that he suddenly decided that his usual routine, which was merely terrific, wouldn't be good enough.
Conner at 26 is the grand old man of U.S. gymnastics, a three-time Olympic team member and world champ on the parallel bars in 1979, the owner of a prodigious collection of national titles that stretch back to the Oklahoma NCAA championship team of 1978. Plus one other distinction: He had petitioned his way into the '84 Olympic trials and had scrambled to make the team after having missed the nationals while recovering from surgery on his left shoulder. He had come away from the operation lighter by 40 bone chips plucked from his left elbow. That was last December. When he stepped up to face the world in L.A., the scars were still freshly purple.
"I don't know if you noticed," Conner said later, "but it wasn't the routine I usually do. I was making changes as I went along."