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Rising To Great Heights
Frank Deford
December 24, 1984
For Olympic champions Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton, 1984 was a year of expectations and a dream fulfilled
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December 24, 1984

Rising To Great Heights

For Olympic champions Edwin Moses and Mary Lou Retton, 1984 was a year of expectations and a dream fulfilled

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Retton is red-white-and-blue, make no mistake about it. Her holiday calendar started with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade down Broadway and includes the Bob Hope Christmas special, a benefit at the Kennedy Center in Our Nation's Capital and a cover appearance on Seventeen magazine to coincide with her own 17th birthday on Jan. 24.

During the Macy's parade, there were several other Olympians on the McDonald's float with her, but the Thanksgiving crowds cheered only for her: Mary Lou! Mary Lou! It moves quickly when you are 16 and champion of the world. There are spunky 8-year-olds out there who want to be lucky, too.

Unlike Retton, who worked a lifetime to become a darling overnight, Moses is an accidental athlete who had to convince a fickle public that he deserved to be a champion after he already was one. In 1976, he was an honor student at Morehouse College in Atlanta when he sort of drifted into the 400 hurdles and thought maybe he might have a chance at qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials. By July, he was the only American capable of winning an individual track and field gold medal at Montreal. On Aug. 26, 1977 he lost for the last time. His winning streak in heats and finals has now reached 109. He has, as far as we know, won the most races that any human being has ever won in a row.

Once, along the way, he tried taking a regular job, as an aerospace engineer, but soon enough he was back at the hurdles. We have a tendency to assume that our most intelligent athletes will depart the arena first for more approved adult endeavors, but, in fact, the smart ones often divine more in their sport and, like Moses, become more dedicated to it and stay the longest at the party.

"My whole life is totally different from what I thought it would be," he says. "Of course, I think it's been more valuable to me the way—the order—in which things have happened. Whenever I speak at school assemblies, I stress the balance between academics and athletics, and how the one helps the other. But then, sometimes I'd feel badly for myself when I saw all my friends going off to start medical school, while here I was with only a B.S. in physics, still just running track." But one day some track nut told Moses he had this streak going.

And so he kept running, although the public perception lingered that he was either a mystery or a menace. Was this black guy a militant? He wore shades and a beard and a necklace, didn't he? In fact, Moses is merely a private man, and only with time did people discover that there was more dignity than distance to him.

Myrella, whom he married in 1982, began the process of translating his temperament for an impatient world. In contrast to his meditative oblong countenance and the resonant voice that goes with it, Myrella's face is open, her manner airy, with a garrulous vivacity that makes her something of a European Mary Lou Retton. And soon, with the streak growing, Moses's image and stature both changed, and by the time the L.A. Olympics approached, he was not only a hero to the world, but also, within his own subculture, an adviser, a spokesman, a counselor, a mediator, a diplomat and even, as Myrella says, "a grandfather." No athlete in any sport is so respected by his peers as Moses is in track and field. "An athlete has a heavy responsibility placed on him," he says. "Whether or not he wants it."

So it was that while the Olympics made Retton, they only certified Moses. He had so many commitments and endorsements going into last year that "it was all so stressful that I was right up to the red line, where you've got the RPMs so high that you almost damage the machine." Indeed, he believes he will be more capable of breaking his world record of 47.02 in the "off' year of '85, and that certainly isn't a surprising claim inasmuch as he always works and trains alone near his Laguna Hills, Calif. home, and obtains challenge from within.

Ironically, his victory in Los Angeles was so predictable that the Olympic performance he will be more remembered for came at the Opening Ceremonies. He was chosen to recite the competitors' oath, and he stood up and...forgot the words. No one had told him that the oath would be shown on the scoreboard, and he was too proud to bring along a crib sheet. "It's only 43 words," he grumps now, still unwilling to accept—even as Myrella assures him—that there was something endearing about the intellectual, all-conquering Moses making such a foolish error. In a way, his painful exposure before all the world was the last stripping away of the mask.

Grudgingly, Moses listened to this fond appraisal of his human vulnerability. He was back home in Dayton, Ohio, where he had grown up living on the edge of a park, the son of educators. His father, Irving Sr., died a year ago, and so now he was back visiting Gladys, his mother, being honored by his hometown and attending the groundbreaking for what would become Edwin C. Moses Boulevard. Fairmont, the West Virginia town where Retton was raised, is about 200 miles due east; Dayton and Fairmont rest between the 39th and 40th parallels, the one in rich farmland, the other in the bituminous fields, so that they are rather like the two champions they've produced: so close and yet so far.

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