Start with the obvious, that he's a tall, lean, 29-year-old black man, and she's a short, sturdy white girl, at age 16 still on the lee of womanhood. Moses never concentrated on athletics, never leaped a hurdle, till he was well past the age when Retton had been enthroned as champion of all the world. He's a scholar, she (at least for now) a high school dropout. He was an enigma long ignored; she a sprite instantly adored. He's totally independent as an athlete, self-taught; she's so dependent upon her coach that, at the instant she captured the gold, his apt words were: "We did it." Moses's presence was for a long time so off-putting that he needed an understanding wife to style him for the public; by comparison, Retton's natural elfin exultation would absolutely explode if anyone else touched a spark to it. He's the ultimate specialist, taking one arcane event, the 400-meter hurdles, and refining it, redefining it, crystallizing it, to the point where the race is now one with the man; she's the classic generalist, the only female gymnast to make it to all four event finals, none of which she won. But by then, of course, she'd won her gold medal in the All-Around.
So Moses and Retton have taught us again that, however much great athletes must be blessed with ability, each champion must be fired in his or her own kiln. Certainly, gender has the least to do with it. If you were to look farther out on the sporting landscape, away from Los Angeles, the two other athletes who rose the highest this year were Doug Flutie and Martina Navratilova, and she, the woman, is altogether a spiritual and technological kin of Moses, while Flutie, the man, is like Retton, both of them formed almost entirely out of magic and moment.
Retton, for best example, knew—she knew—that she would win the gold while she was still, inconveniently, in midair. She could visualize that her performance would end perfectly, and it did. Perhaps you forget some of this. It was the evening of Friday, Aug. 3, and Retton had fallen 0.15 points behind Ecaterina Szabo of Romania, which is Nadia Comaneci's country. Retton can remember watching Nadia enchant the world during the '76 Olympics; Mary Lou was eight then. She recalls that she thought how "lucky" Nadia was—not for winning, but for just being there. And now she trailed Nadia's heir by 0.15.
Then, in the penultimate round, Szabo scored 9.90 on the vault, and Retton prepared for her floor exercises. "I had nothing to lose, so I never thought negative," she says. "Besides, I come out better under pressure. So I just said to myself, 'Fight harder, Mary Lou.' And when I did my floor, I knew it was a good floor. I stuck all my passes. Then came the only time I was nervous. Not doing it, but waiting for the floor scores." The floor scores were 10, and Retton was down by only 0.05 going into the last round of the competition.
Szabo had to go first, across the way, on the uneven bars. And what do you think Retton did? She peeked. "I mean, yeah, I had to watch her bars," she says—and she mimics how she did it, out of the corner of her eyes. Sometimes now she'll watch the tape of that evening and "root again for myself." Retton is sitting cross-legged on her hotel bed in her size-1 dress, with her size-3 high heels kicked off. She's like a dish of pudding, especially when she laughs. No one would ever take a bite out of her; you'd take a scoop.
And now, in memory, Retton watches Nadia's heir go on the unevens. "I saw her take a step on her dismount, and I said to myself, 'You have a chance, Mary Lou.' " Szabo got a 9.9. If Retton made a 9.95 on her vault, she would tie for the gold; a perfect 10 and she would become the first American woman ever to win one in gymnastics. And soon she was twisting in midair and knew she was a lock. "I stuck it," she says.
So that was no surprise. The next morning was the surprise. Before the Olympics there were nights Retton would lie in her bed, and she would envision herself doing exactly what she, in fact, did, which is score enough 10s to win. That was what she was up to. Only six weeks before her triumph, she'd flown to Richmond to have arthroscopic surgery on her knee. I All the way in the Learjet, she I thought: "Why me?" At 16, this is the end of the world. But thanks to arthroscopy, as Aug. 3 neared she could lie awake nights and dream again.
Still, even when she was winning, it never occurred to her what was happening beyond the walls of Pauley Pavilion. In fact, ABC was selling America a live pixie named Mary Lou Retton. And Saturday morning, when she chanced to step outside the Olympic Village, all of a sudden, just like that, Los Angeles descended on her. "I mean, there were mobs of people," she says. "And the people knew me! They said things like, 'Mary Lou, you've been in our home. You've been in our living room. We feel like we know you, Mary Lou!'
"I still think it's kind of neat, too. I mean, I'd understand people recognizing me if I had purple hair or something, but I'm just a normal teenager. I'm still just Mary Lou."
Of course, she's also Mary Lou incorporated now. On Jan. 1, 1983 she gave up family and home in West Virginia to go off to Houston to train with a new coach, Bela Karolyi—Nadia's old coach, who had defected in 1981—and now she has to give up a lot of training to make hay while the sun shines. Retton's first three signings were with McDonald's, Vidal Sassoon and Wheaties, a commercial trinity of epic eclecticism. Why, she would be the first celebrity of her sex on the front of the Breakfast of Champions! (Egad, they'll want the vice-presidency next.)