Golden Girl: 30 Years of Mary Lou


Today marks the 30th anniversary since Mary Lou Retton became the first American woman to win an individual Olympic medal for gymnastics…and not only a medal, but the all-around gold, something that wouldn’t be repeated for twenty years.

As U.S. gymnasts come and go, Mary Lou sealed her place as the face of the sport on that August 3 night in 1984. The Gymternet takes a look back at the competition as a tribute to the woman who put USA Gymnastics on the map.

Though she qualified first into the all-around, Retton still had her work cut out for her if she wanted the gold. Her biggest competition came from a pair of Romanians named Ecaterina Szabo and Simona Pauca. Before defecting from Romania, Retton’s coach Bela Karolyi trained Szabo. He of all people knew what his athlete had to do to come out on top and he trained her to get to that level. But when the competition started, it was all up to her to make it happen.

Retton started on uneven bars, by far her weakest event. She hit solidly but her slightly bent knees earned her a 9.8. At the same time, Szabo competed four consecutive back handsprings on beam and the judges awarded her a perfect 10. Defeating Szabo was not going to be easy.

On beam, Retton put in a solid effort but had a bit of trouble with her punch front, earning another 9.8. Szabo meanwhile nailed her floor routine, earning a 9.95 and jumping ahead of the American for the lead.

Retton appeared troubled but determined going into the third rotation. She knew her floor routine would have to be perfect if she wanted the gold. She stuck her opening pass, a stuck double layout, huge for 1984. She was flawless until the very end, and though she came up a bit short on her final pass, the judges awarded her with exactly what she needed – a perfect 10.

On vault, Szabo’s Cuervo brought in a 9.9. Five one-hundredths of a point separated the two. The all-around gold came down to who could hit in the fourth and final rotation.

In her final routine, Szabo performed an exceptionally difficult bar set, but stepped back on her dismount to earn a 9.9. Retton would need a 9.95 to tie and a second perfect 10 to win.

Retton took a deep breath before bolting down the vault runway. Her Tsuk full was as explosive and perfect as anyone could have done, and after a minute, her score was revealed to be a perfect 10. The crowd lost their minds while Retton celebrated, but it was almost like she didn’t want her night to end. Yes, she’d won, but opted to compete the vault a second time, like a victory dance after a touchdown. Her second score? Another perfect 10.

Most gymnasts would never be “perfect” in their entire careers but Retton did it three times in one night. She became an overnight sensation, earning her place in history as a star athlete, a gymnastics icon, and a household name, paving the way for Americans in the sport of gymnastics to break through the Soviet/Romanian stronghold that dominated international medal podiums from day one.

Of course, the Soviet Union and the rest of the eastern bloc had boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games – held in Los Angeles, Calif. – as a response to the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Games by 65 countries due to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The absence of the Soviet gymnasts in 1984 certainly created a less competitive field, but it’s impossible to say what “probably” would have happened had the Soviets been in attendance. Retton won, and her gold medal began an era of American success and her legacy continues to inspire thousands of young gymnasts every single day.

Article by Bekah Harbison

7 thoughts on “Golden Girl: 30 Years of Mary Lou

  1. Pingback: That’s a 10. That’s a 10. — Gymnastics

  2. Pingback: That’s a 10. That’s a 10. | Gymnastics News Network.

    • Haha, yup! Otherwise Szabo was the finals winner…I wonder how many results would change in recent years if qualification and finals scores were still added?


  3. I still remember the Sports Illustrated cover, with ML raising his fists in triumph and the headline ONLY YOU, MARY LOU. She was awesome that day.


  4. Definitely my idol back in ’84. It’s a shame to hear so many people say she wasn’t good or isn’t deserving of her legacy. Yes, if the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc nations like Germany had attended, maybe she wouldn’t have placed so high. But so what? She rose to the occasion and capitalized on what could have been a really difficult situation (the boycott) and it worked out for her.


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