This was going to be a straight report on the McDonald's USA gymnastics championships last weekend at the University of Illinois' Chicago Pavilion—you know, 140 elite athletes from 40 states, including 25 universities and 30 clubs, led by Bart Conner and Kathy Johnson and Julianne McNamara, the veterans, back again and presumably better than ever. The winners, the top-scoring 18 men and 21 women, would make up the official U.S. team for this last crucial year before the 1984 Olympics. Not only that, the competition would qualify them for a shot at the Pan Am Games, the World University Games and National Sports Festival, as well as the world championship team trials—just about everything big that'll be going on in the sport for the rest of the season. As promised, it all started out to be routinely terrific, but then, suddenly, it got better.
Every championship event should have a tricky development that, well, jumps right out at you and, better yet, rumors of dark intrigue. Look over there, under the banners and bunting, and check out that chap with the Rhett Butler mustache and what could only be an expensive razor cut. Ah hah! It's none other than Bela Karolyi, once the national coach of Romania, the man who brought you world and Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci, plus team after team of winners from his secret training camp at Deva, in darkest Transylvania. Karolyi defected to the U.S. in 1981 with a suitcase, leaving everything else behind, including an elegantly shabby old Mercedes, perhaps the only one in all of Transylvania. That ought to have provided a clue: A guy who'll do that must be up to something.
Absolutely. Since then Karolyi has gained control of the best U.S. women gymnasts to come along in years, a pair of young competitors who hold such promise for world and Olympic triumph that it's a bit scary. He has 300 more kids in training at his Sundance Athletic Club in Houston, including six he says are already approaching world class, and he's clearly planning to seize more, a situation that's not exactly spreading joy among other coaches. "Life is very fast," Karolyi says, in an accent bespeaking murky castles. "Already we dominate all of Texas gymnastics. Since last July, my team hasn't lost to anyone. No one. Now, we are the powerful ones." A pause here for dramatic effect. "Right now, as a club, we could beat the U.S. team."
Maybe so, but for now one should simply gaze in wonder upon Karolyi's Aerial Circus: Dianne Durham of Gary, Ind. and Mary Lou Retton of Fairmont, W. Va., both 15 and in their first appearances as seniors, one black, one white, both so dynamic they were the hit of last weekend's show—not an easy stunt to pull off in an arena full of high rollers. "No doubt about it, Bela's girls will be great" says Conner. "That is, if they can manage to stay inside their bodies between now and the Olympics."
June 12, 1983
That's an old gymnastic expression, but it seems clear enough: Dianne and Mary Lou are pint-size, but both have such powerful shoulders and thighs that one does wonder if they can continue to contain all that strength. They walk like a pair of little bitty James Cagneys, which, surprisingly, isn't at all unflattering in girls that cute and perky. And 15.
And there was no way that they were going to leave Chicago without making the national team. Consider their accomplishments coming into the meet. Mary Lou, all 4'5" and 75 pounds of her, is a onetime junior national whiz, and as a senior she has won the all-around at the American Classic and Caesars Palace Invitational, as well as two world AA titles. She came to Chicago as the only American gymnast undefeated in any all-around competition since August 1982. "Not bad," she says, "for a little old West Virginia girl." Best of all, she already has a move she hopes will be named after her—The Retton—that could go down in gymnastics history. It's a stunning feat for one so young, and at the moment she's the only one doing it. "I'm on top of the uneven bars," she says, "and then I swing down and I belly-beat the lower bar, see, and then I rise up into a front flip off the high bar, and then I let go and do a complete front flip and land sitting on the high bar." All in about the time it takes an audience to say Wow! Mary Lou is careful to point out that her original coach, Gary Rafolowski, thought up the move, though Karolyi "helped me polish it."
Dianne, who at 4'7" towers over her teammate, also came in strong, as a onetime junior elite champion and all-around winner of 1982's U.S. Gymnastics Federation International Invitational. And she, too, has an arsenal of moves—soaring vaults and, most notably, a floor routine that often includes three double-backs, double somersaults done backward. "I just, like, I just do it," she says. "My routine is, I guess you'd call it bold; that's a good word to use."
Bold, you bet. The girls were a joy to watch. On the compulsory vault Dianne bounded so high that she practically got lost in the lights. She came down to a 9.65 (out of the possible 10). On the beam Mary Lou was a tiny demon, and she collected a 9.45 on vault. By the end of the Friday night session, there was the shape of future U.S. gymnastics for all to see: Durham was in first place with 37.55 points of a possible 40; McNamara was next with 37.40, and then came Retton with 37.15. And in the optionals on Saturday night, with the combined score of the two events making up the all-around, Dianne and Mary Lou proceeded to shoot out the lights.
Karolyi darted nervously from girl to girl, telling each one to "Go for it—hard!" "Bela's good at pumping us up," Mary Lou says. Dianne is more matter-of-fact. Nodding at a competitor who had bobbled slightly on a double back-flip, she said, "Bela would have killed me if I'd done that." So go for it they did, in a wondrous display of young power in action.
First to falter under the Saturday night attack was the smooth Tracee Talavara, who had won this meet the last two years. By the time the rotation had moved around to the beam, the seventh of her eight events, she had dropped off to 21st spot, but when it was all over Talavara had scrambled back to 16th to claim a place on the team.
McNamara and 23-year-old Kathy Johnson fared better. When Retton scored 9.2 on the beam, Johnson countered with a 9.5, despite a slip, but on the vault Dianne gave them a layout Tsukahara with a full twist—a move many women try but few achieve—and came down with a 9.9. In the floor exercise Retton unleashed some of the night's highest bounces and collected another 9.2. Johnson fell attempting a double back-pike, that old forehead smasher, and still got a 9.05—which told everybody in the house just how tough it was going to be to nudge aside the judges' oldtime favorites. She finished fifth.
Ah, but there was no stopping the kids. Mary Lou produced her almost patented Retton on the uneven bars—a 9.6 effort—and in the vault she had the guts to actually go for a Tsukahara double twist, a 1½ layout backward somersault with not one, but two twists. Only Mary Lou has ever done this—just three weeks ago, at the Elite Nationals in Colorado Springs, scoring a 10—and for a moment all competition stopped. She doggone near made it this time: Seldom has the air been so full of one spinning, twisting body. It earned her a 9.6, and that pretty much was that.
When the smoke cleared, Durham, a powerful gymnast still young enough to carry a Teddy bear around the arena under one arm, had won it all, with 76.10 points out of a possible 80—behold, the first black woman champion in the sport. In second place with 75.05 was the 17-year-old McNamara, and in third, just .05 of a point away with 75.00 even, was Retton.
Durham's and Retton's vault into the big time also marked the seemingly inexorable advance of Karolyi, the new guy on the continent. Some U.S. gymnastics folks are bitter about his success. To hear them talk, one would think Karolyi had swept the girls up in his great Transylvanian cape. Perhaps what many in the sport forget is that the good old-fashioned talent raid is a particularly American institution; heck, sporting tycoons have been doing it for years. Any coach who lets himself get beat at the game by a newcomer would do better to pause and rethink the situation.
The men's competition was relatively free of intrigue: While exciting, it went more or less as expected. The winner was Mitch Gaylord, 22, of UCLA, followed by Peter Vidmar, 21, also of UCLA, and Jim Hartung, 22, from Nebraska. Conner, a former World Cup champ on pommel horse and world champ on bars, an old man at 25 who operates out of Norman, Okla., finished ninth—safely, of course, on the traveling team.
In Sunday's individual-event finals, the traditional showboat part of these meets, the earlier winners simply proved their performances had not been flukes. When the chalk dust had settled, Gaylord was champ of the floor exercise, still rings and parallel bars, and Dianne had swept the titles in floor exercise, vault and beam.
A dynasty was in the making last weekend, but after all, dynasties aren't hard to build when you know how. "I learned all this," Karolyi says, "in the school of life."