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1984 Summer Olympics: Mary Lou Retton Was The First American Woman To Win The All-Around Gold Medal In Olympic Gymnastics

Icons | August 11, 2021

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In 1980, the United States and 64 other countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics. In reaction, the Soviet Union and some of its allies boycotted the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Romania was the notable exception to this boycott. Because the Soviets would have been favored to win gold in the all-around competition for women’s gymnastics, their absence opened the door to the American team. That year, Mary Lou Retton would become the first American woman to win the all-around gold.

Nadia Comaneci, who inspired Retton. Source: (Tumblr).

She Started Her Career At Eight

Retton, who was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, was inspired to begin gymnastics when she was eight, after watching Nadia Comăneci on television at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. She began her training shortly after that. Retton then decided to move to Houston to train under Béla and Márta Károlyi (they had coached Comăneci prior to their defection to America). In 1983, Retton won the American Cup and placed second to Dianne Durham at U.S. Nationals. She also won Japan’s Chunichi Cup that year. Because she had a wrist injury, she did not compete in the World Gymnastics Championships in 1983. In 1984, she won the American classic, the American Cup, the U.S. Nationals, and secured her place in the Olympics during the U.S. Olympic Trials.

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Before The Olympics

While she was performing a floor routine in a local gymnastics center, she injured her knee. After the injury, she had to undergo an operation on her knee, five weeks before the Olympics, but fortunately, she recovered in time to compete. Retton, who had begun her gymnastics career at eight, was only a sophomore in high school when she competed in the Olympics. During her time as a gymnast, she created a move that came to be called the “Retton Flip” which had a transition, or front flip, from the low- to the high-bar. At the end of the move, the gymnast perched on the top of the high bar. It, along with others, was removed from the Code of Points of artistic gymnastics.

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Winning Gold

Prior to the final two events, Retton was trailing Ecaterina Szabo of Romania. Retton managed to score a 10.00 for her floor routine; Retton then led the other 35 women by the final night of competition, besting Szabo by merely .15 of a point. Retton’s final event on August 3, 1984, was the vault, and in order to win the gold, she needed to stick the landing and earn a perfect 10. After she hit the vault, she completed a Tsukahara and came down for the perfect landing. She and her coach, Béla Károlyi, waited to see the score flash on the scoreboard. After the “10.00,” a score of perfect, flashed, Retton became the first American woman to win the all-around gold, winning by .05 points. She also became the first female gymnast who was not from Eastern Europe to win the honor. That year, she not only took home all-around gold but also won two silvers and two bronze medals.

In Dancing with the Stars. Source: (IMDb).

Life After The Olympics

The year she won gold, Sports Illustrated named her Sportswoman of the Year and she became the first female athlete to be featured on a box of Wheaties, becoming their spokesperson. She went on to be inducted into the Gymnastics Hall of Fame. The year following the Olympics, she won the American Cup all-around competition, before retiring in 1986. After retirement, she was a spokesperson for Revco, a U.S. drugstore chain, and had a number of endorsements. She has since worked as an analyst for televised gymnastics and has had a number of film and television appearances, including an appearance as herself in the film Scrooged and as a contestant on the 27th season of Dancing with the Stars

Tags: 1984 Olympics | Gymnastics | Mary Lou Retton

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Linda Speckhals

Writer

When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.