Wouldn't you know it: In the end, it came down to a level at which bravado counted as much as talent. It became a case in which the judges would say we give it a 10 for guts alone and in the process turned this into an Olympic gymnastics meet that trashed a lot of preconceptions about just who would do what to whom. From the luminous moment when Mary Lou Retton, America's pixie hot rod, pounded down the runway toward her climactic vault; to when Mitch Gaylord disappeared into the banners overhead; to when Bart Conner made up his floor exercise on the spot, editing it as he went from somersault to handstand, the show was a wonderful scramble. What the heck, give the entire production at Pauley Pavilion a 10.
The U.S. men won the team gold medal with as much brio as anybody could ask, snatching it from under the favored world-champion Chinese while they were still somewhere in midair. The U.S. women got the team silver, behind Romania and ahead of China. Both of these were historic occurrences. But then along came Retton to win the championship of everything in sight and now—at last!—the average-size people of America have a heroine they can look down to.
Everybody knows by now that Retton is the wonder girl of Fairmont, W. Va., 16 years old and bubbly beyond belief. And Friday night, grinning like an elf from behind her women's all-around gold medal, she said, "Well, nobody thought it could be done. But you know what? I went and did it."
Not one step of it had been easy. Good grief, the women's individual all-around championship might just as well have been conducted inside a bass drum. Going into the event, Retton had a mere .15 lead, 39.525-39.375, over Romania's Ecaterina Szabo. (Those totals were based on their compulsory and optional scores.) She also had what looked like no chance to win the gold medal. The silver? Possibly. As if to prove that, after the first of four rotations Retton's lead had dissolved into a tie; one more round and she was behind by. 15. And two more powerful Romanians, Laura Cutina and Simon a Pauca, were stalking her.
One had to think of the odds: No American woman had ever won an individual Olympic gymnastics medal of any kind—until last week, a 1948 team bronze had been the best U.S. accomplishment—and while Retton is the reigning American all-around champ and hadn't lost a meet in the past year and a half, she'd had little international experience. And Szabo, a deadpan blonde of 17 who sprinkles glittery makeup around her eyes, was implacable. She was the European junior champion of 1980 and '82; she's Romania's national champ, and she finished third behind two Soviets at the 1983 world meet in Budapest, where she had collected five 10s. Now, with the Soviets on the Olympic sidelines, Szabo was the boss.
"Well, at least she's about my size," said Retton on Friday before the all-around. "You know: We're both about 4'9". I've seen her work, and she's terrific." And then Retton grinned, the world's smallest conspirator. "But what she doesn't know about me is that I'm tougher than she is."
In they marched, before a crowd of some 9,000 that could best be described as pre-crazed, with Retton and the other two U.S. women, Julianne McNamara and Kathy Johnson, wearing American-flag leotards that flaunted stripes here and stars there, right down to their tiny bottoms. In the Vietnam days of student protests, kids were arrested for showing up in public like that. Off to one side, hoarsely shouting instructions from the photography pit, was one Bela Karolyi, the transplanted Transylvanian who coaches Retton and McNamara in Houston. He was there unofficially; Don Peters is the U.S. women's coach, but Karolyi had obtained a floor-level credential as an equipment adjuster for AMF, a job he ignored all week. Every time Karolyi yelled, Retton nodded at him grimly and punched at the air with both fists. Nobody fires up Retton like Karolyi.
And fire was definitely in order. Szabo took to the beam with, among other moves, a dazzling four back handsprings in a row, something no other elite woman gymnast even attempts. She came soaring off with a double-back somersault dismount for a 10. The best Retton could do on the uneven bars was an unsteady 9.85, and suddenly they were locked at 49.375 each. And while Szabo didn't look openly at Retton—and Retton didn't so much as glance at Szabo until that last grand moment—there was a distinct in-your-face posture about the Romanian. It's the way polite lady gymnasts communicate.
It got worse when Retton headed for the beam and Szabo for the floor exercise. It's one thing to do your routine to music, often classical, but it's quite another to kick it home with The Battle Hymn of the Republic, as Szabo did. There went the Daughters of the Confederacy vote. But no matter, she got a 9.95. While this was going on, Retton was hammering the beam with a stag-leap mount and a daring backward tuck somersault. But all she got was a 9.80 amid a crescendo of boos for the judges, while Karolyi, elbowing aside photographers, turned roughly the color of the cerise banners overhead. The score: 59.325-59.175 in Szabo's favor.
The odd thing was, Retton wasn't keeping score. What she was doing, head down, rolling her shoulders, shaking out her thighs, was getting ready to attack. "I knew she had me edged on points," Retton was to say later. "But I also knew that I had the floor exercise and the vault coming up. And they are my strong events." It was now a two-horse race, with Pauca a somewhat distant third and everybody else, including Retton's U.S. teammates, out of sight.