In the Golden Afterglow, 10-Acious Mary Lou Retton Attacks the Rest of Her Life

updated 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Gold is not cheap. Did Mary Lou Retton understand this as she stood on the end of that runway, 80 feet from the horse that would launch her into gymnastic legend and change her life forever? Her eyes narrowed, her jaw set in determination, the soon-to-be superstar began her short run toward destiny. It was an image not quickly erased from memory, her powerful legs pounding toward the oddly shaped piece of apparatus, her tightly coiled 4'9", 92-pound body spinning through the air with surprising, hypnotic grace, turning, twisting. Mary Lou landed on the dark blue mat and stretched her arms upward, saluting the perfect 10.00 that locked up her all-around gold medal. Did she know where she was going, and what she would be leaving behind? Her mother had an idea. Lois Retton, 47, told a sportswriter, not without sadness, "I think maybe we've lost her."

In some ways Mary Lou's first may be the best moment she'll ever have, though she is only 16 years old. She will, of course, be rich and famous. Already she has become a cover girl on a slew of national magazines and has logged more minutes on TV than the promos for ABC's Call to Glory. On the economic front she's made a TV commercial for a Dallas bank and has been talking to K mart, a corporation with a tidy $19 billion in annual sales. How much would Mary Lou's influence on those indiscriminating consumers—her fellow teenagers—be worth to K mart?

Only two days after her splendid triumph in the all-around, a few small clouds had begun to gather over Mary Lou's golden paradise. Though she collected a silver and two bronze medals in the individual events—no American woman gymnast before her had ever won so much as a single Olympic medal of any kind—Mary Lou pouted at the post-competition press conference. She felt the judges had cheated her out of the gold in the vault and implied that the American team coach, Don Peters, had failed to back her up, despite the urging of her personal coach Bela Karolyi. "I don't want to sound conceited or cocky, but I was shocked," Mary Lou complained. "I feel my vault was a lot more superior. I went higher and farther [than Romanian Ecaterina Szabo, who nipped Mary Lou for first]. In the finals you're supposed to throw two different vaults. She did not. [The judges disagreed.] Bela was trying to protest, but certain people wouldn't. I stuck mine; she did not." Said certain person Peters, "Mary Lou did not stick." (For those who were in a coma during the TV coverage of the gymnastic events, "to stick" means to land perfectly.)

And then there's the old question: Can you go home again? For the past 19 months Mary Lou has been living with a surrogate family in Houston—the better to train with Bela—far from her parents in Fairmont, W.Va. Says her mother, "I'd love to see her come home and finish high school, and decide about college. She's only 16.I don't want her to quit gymnastics. I want her home. It's one thing to be away from 14 to 16. But the next two years, that's something else. If they want her, they can come here."

Everybody knows that's not likely to happen. In the real world Mary Lou's parents are thinking about renting an apartment in Houston so that they can see her more frequently than the once every six weeks they managed before the Olympics. As Fairmont's Rev. Colombo Bandiera, a longtime family friend, so succinctly puts it: "I feel bad that it will take her away from all of us. But in all honesty, there's nothing in Fairmont for her anymore. I don't see how she could be happy here."

Contemplating just a short post-Olympics visit home, Retton said, half sadly, half reluctantly, "I haven't been there since last October. I guess I owe my parents something."

By the time the late afternoon sun began setting over Fairmont last week, knots of Retton fans were already clustering along Route 73, the winding country road that leads from the interstate to Clarksburg's Benedum Airport. Shortly after 7:30, as Mary Lou stepped from an Allegheny commuter plane onto the tarmac of Benedum, a roar went up, flags and gold ribbons were waved and a huge gold and white banner—"Go For The Gold Mary Lou"—fluttered in the breeze.

After ducking into the airport building for a few moments, Mary Lou emerged with her parents. Waiting for her were friends, relatives (including Grandpa Sam) and a white Buick Riviera convertible. Also keenly anticipating her arrival was West Virginia Governor Jay Rockefeller, who posed with her for the newsfolk, kissed her and told her that she was indeed "the greatest thing ever to happen to the state of West Virginia."

At the town border, following a jubilant 13-mile procession down the interstate, Mary Lou was transferred from the convertible to a waiting fire truck, Fairmont's finest, Engine No. 1. She perched alone in the truck's high basket—her experience on the balance beam standing her in good stead here—which was decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper.

After a raucous parade of three hours, she finally reached her home on Beverly Street (now unofficially "Mary Lou Retton Road," according to a pale blue banner strung above the street), where neighbors waited six deep. Father Ronnie and mother Lois, carrying plastic tourist bags from L.A., red roses and wilted potted chrysanthemums, stepped from the convertible and, in the blue light of a police flasher, embraced relatives and watched Mary Lou's disembarkation from the fire truck. "She's exhausted," said Ronnie, looking none too rested himself. "She didn't get any sleep at all last night."

Two policemen escorted her down the sloping front lawn to her door. Later a cop said that security had been a concern because of a telephoned death threat against Mary Lou "from some woman, a nut, who doesn't live too far from here." But knowing nothing of this, the golden girl turned once to wave to the crowd and closed the door behind herself. At least for a while, Mary Lou was home.

Forgotten was the post-gold-medal frenzy, when fans stole the Retton mailbox and even clumps of grass from the front yard. Now she was back in the bedroom she once shared with sister Shari, 21, also a gymnast, and the bearer of the Olympic Torch through Fairmont. (Mary Lou also has three brothers, 17 to 23.) One wall is covered with Mary Lou's gymnastic ribbons, mostly blue, and on another is a cast from an old wrist injury autographed by idol Sugar Ray Leonard. The walk-in closet is crammed with memorabilia including a laundry basket full of fan letters. Among her possessions is an autographed picture of her only true love, Matt Dillon. "No time for boyfriends now," Mary Lou says. "Boys can wait...but not too long." The room also houses her collection of stuffed toy lambs—except the one she never abandons, a tattered companion whose ear she used to suck when she was a baby.

The separation from her family was "very hard at first," Mary Lou says. But it was fated from the first time Karolyi spotted Mary Lou at a meet in Salt Lake City, and she begged to go off and train with him. At first her parents refused, saying she was too young. "We held her back a year," says Lois, "but we just knew that she'd gone as far as she could go here. After meets she'd come home crying, saying, 'But Mom, I could be the best!' " She is still their little girl—so little, in fact, that Ronnie (a former class AA shortstop on a Yankee farm team and now the co-owner of an electrical cable company) says that although Mary Lou is eager to get her driver's license, "she'll have to sit on a cushion; she can't even reach the gas pedal."

But the separation from home, Mary Lou says, is "all worth it. If I hadn't gone, I would never be where I am today." In Houston she got to train with Karolyi, the Romanian coach who masterminded Nadia Comaneci and Szabo and then defected to the U.S. in 1981. Despite her intense desire to train with Karolyi, Mary Lou never handed him a blank check. Before leaving for Houston, she had vowed to her mother, "He's not going to make me into a robot. If he thinks that, he's got another think coming." Instead he made Mary Lou—"Leetle Body" to Transylvanian Bela—into a champ.

Retton is special to Karolyi for many reasons—her charm, her powerful body (which led her friends to tease her with affectionate nicknames like Hips and Chicken Legs) and her drive. "She never has to be pushed," says Bela. "If I ask her to try something one more time, the kid never says, 'I'm too tired' or 'I'm having a bad day.' Never ever. It's always, 'Yes, let's go!' "

Of course this willingness to submit to Karolyi's kind of schedule—an average of four hours a day, seven days a week, almost every week of the year—requires some sacrifices. Like a normal education. Though she has taken correspondence courses, she has fallen behind her ex-classmates back in Fairmont. "It's very difficult to practice as much as we do and try to keep up with schoolwork," explains Mary Lou, who nonetheless hopes to tough out the 11th grade beginning this fall.

Nothing better demonstrates Retton's mental and physical toughness than her response to an injury she suffered two months ago. The day after she had two large pieces of cartilage surgically removed from her right knee, she was walking. The next day she was jogging. And the day after that she was back at work on the uneven parallel bars.

The injury was, Karolyi says now, "an unfortunate fortunate situation." Mary Lou's rehabilitation forced her, he claims, to concentrate on precision and helped her peak just in time for the Olympics. She drove herself, he says, "with the dedication of a tiger: 'I'm gonna make it!' "

Mary Lou made it. Now, as souvenirs of victory, she has five medals and one other memento. "I am not," she vows, "going to wash this uniform."

From Our Partners