It's Mary Lou Retton's nature to bubble continuously, rather like a volcano that'll erupt sometime soon. We're talking about a really small volcano, of course, the kind that would do no more damage than knock your socks off. Usually there isn't a lot of noise attendant upon the Retton volcano—just a trickle of sly chuckles and light bursts of laughter that lead up to the occasional explosions, such as when she's describing exactly how one should perform an aerial flip on the balance beam. "You should go blam!" she says, "so solid that you shake the arena." Even in those rare moments when she's sitting quite still, smiling her best ladylike smile, her joints crack and snap mysteriously and audibly, as if she were about to erupt again.
Pop! There goes an ankle bone.
Was, uh, was that you, Mary Lou?
She nods brightly. "You should hear me when I get up on damp mornings," she says. "I sound like an old wooden railroad trestle."
July 17, 1984
The chuckles, laughs and blams come from Mary Lou's natural ebullience, nothing to be done about that, and the creaking comes from nine intensive years of gymnastics, which we'll get to in a moment. But first, here's Retton, not quite 4'10" and 95 pounds, brown eyes and bouncy brown hair, 16 years old, size 3 shoes, and if there were such a thing as the Official Pixie of the 1984 Olympic Games, this girl would be it. The story is that she was born in a small West Virginia town, and you can believe it if you want to, but there's better reason to suspect that she simply stepped out from under a toadstool one day in 1968. Scale-model leotards and all.
Retton is now an international all-around champion, as well as an individual champ on vault and in floor exercise, and is clearly the top U.S. woman gymnast. She started winning at the world-class level in 1983 and is undefeated in the all-around so far in '84: This year she has rolled through six major meets, her scores peppered with 10s, breaking or equaling all-around scoring records and picking off some of the best Europeans along the way. In May, Retton won the national all-around title—she had 10s on the floor and the vault—and at the Olympic trials in June, the last big meet before the Games, she wisely played it cool and still qualified No. 1 for the eight-member U.S. women's team. Even without the Soviet-bloc boycott, she would have been as good a gold medal prospect, especially in the vault, as the U.S. may ever get in a sport in which American women have never won an individual medal of any kind. This would seem to be pretty weighty stuff for someone who can't even peer over the top of a Volkswagen. On tiptoes.
But one learns quickly not to worry about this little person. Here comes another minor eruption: "It's all in the training," Retton says. "I work at this seven days a week—two long, hard sessions a day, drilling myself, going over everything again and again. Constantly. And at night sometimes I dream gymnastic dreams. I'll be lying there quietly, sound asleep, and suddenly my whole body will give a great big jump and practically throw me out of bed. [She demonstrates the jump.] But, see, what that means is that it's working just the way it's supposed to work. Here's what it takes to be a complete gymnast: Someone should be able to sneak up and drag you out at midnight and push you out on some strange floor, and you should be able to do your entire routine sound asleep in your pajamas. Without one mistake. That's the secret. It's got to be a natural reaction."
This is some secret. But Retton's guileless explanation will come as no surprise to anyone in the sport: She has long been known as a rarity in gymnastics, an absolute natural. This dates back to the days when she was considerably smaller—is that possible?—and was known as the great lamp-smasher and table-upsetter back home in Fairmont, W. Va. Her folks, Ron and Lois, were, naturally, the first to know. "I swear," says Lois, "that girl was so hyper you wouldn't believe it. I mean, energetic! First, she walked at an early age, and then she and her older sister, Shari, were running around here like little crazy people, doing tumbling and all, bouncing off the walls and breaking up the furniture. I finally sent them both off to dancing school. You know, tap and ballet and acrobatics. Well, it was the acrobatics that did it."
This was hardly unexpected, considering the wealth of athletic genes rumbling around inside all the Rettons. Ron is only 5'7" but was a feisty guard during West Virginia University's basketball glory days (1955-59). And he was no pip-squeak at the end of the bench; he was co-captain, with—ye gads!—Jerry West, of the Mountaineer team that scrambled to the 1959 NCAA finals, only to be beaten 71-70 by the University of California. "I was the sixth man," Ron says, "but I didn't get to play all that much because of my size." Later—until 1963—he was a shortstop with various teams in the New York Yankee farm system before settling down to raise a troupe of active kids.
There's Ronnie, 23, who played on the baseball team at West Virginia; Shari, 21, a senior at the same school, a full-scholarship gymnast who made All-America in her freshman year; Donnie, 18, a sophomore at Fairmont (W Va.) State, and a catcher on, and student-coach of, that school's baseball team; and 17-year-old Jerry, a high school senior and three-letter man, in baseball, basketball and football. And one mustn't overlook cousin Joe Retton, who as basketball coach at Fairmont State (1964-82) had the winningest record in the country (SI, Nov. 30, 1981). Lois dashes around as head spectator and family cheerleader. "I'll tell you," she sighs, "none of the kids is envious of Mary Lou one bit. They all have their own identities in this family." They also have their own batting cage in the backyard.
Still, she worries. The specter of her youngest child being injured clearly haunts her. "When we started Mary Lou in gymnastics school at seven," Lois says, "none of us ever dreamed it would go this far. Why, when she was just a tiny thing, with her square, stocky build and all, we used to tease her now and then. We'd call her Miss Grace. Or our Miss Flexibility. And she used to answer back, 'Well, that's O.K., Mom. I may not be whippy, but I've got all that power.' " Lois pauses and shakes her head, a gesture common to mothers the world over. "And now look at her. Her poor little old body is all full of arthritis already and she creaks when she walks." In desperation, Lois once borrowed a high-impact plastic flak jacket from the West Fairmont Senior High football team for Mary Lou to wear in training. "She was busting up her ribs on the uneven bars," Lois says.
Well, not exactly. "None of that stuff is as bad as Mom says," says Mary Lou, as she sits in the gymnasium at the center in Houston where she trains. "I used to get bruises and bumps, but not much anymore. I'm in great shape—never been as strong as right now, and look: I've finally reached the point where I can do all of this. There was a time when I wouldn't have believed it. But if you work hard, somehow it finally pays off. And then it can actually become, you know, glamorous." She squares her shoulders and begins acting out her explanation as she speaks. "In a way, it becomes, like, fun. Do something great on the uneven bars, and you can hear it hit the crowd. And the floor exercise is even better. You can play to everybody, show it off a little. And then...." She holds her hands out in front of her like a platform, so. "...Then comes that podium. And those medals. It's what you work for. What a great feeling!"
She rises and walks back to resume training, positively exuding a sense of controlled power. This is Retton's Workout Walk, not those artificial, mincing steps that women gymnasts use when rotating from one event to another. "That stuff's just for show, to make us look classier than we really are," she says. "Ordinarily, we all walk like little bitty football players."
That rolling, shoulder-swinging walk is one thing; watching Retton run full blast toward the vault is quite another. An awed Don Peters, the 1984 U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics coach, has said, "It's like seeing O.J. Simpson run." Compared to Mary Lou, other gymnasts seem to be standing still as they approach the vault.
For the moment, controlling and directing this volcanic power has fallen to one Bela Karolyi, the most important man in Retton's young life. He has been coaching her for the past 19 months, adding to her portfolio of tricks, and if ever there was a meeting of great athletic minds, this is it. Little winks and nudges between events and the exchange of low fives—because of Retton's size—clearly indicate they're of one mind as they conspire to blow the doors and fenders, not to mention the socks, off the gymnastics world.
Karolyi came marching into U.S. gymnastics in 1981 after defecting from Romania, where he'd been the national coach and producer of waves of winning women's teams and individual champions. Over the years his charges won 10 world and five Olympic titles; the most notable of those champions, Nadia Comaneci, made off with no fewer than three gold medals at the 1976 Games. Of course, he's now a major power in U.S. gymnastics, and it really gets to other American coaches that Karolyi is building an empire in Houston with a huge, well-financed training center and some 500 kids under his control. Karolyi is getting set to do his Romanian bit all over again, only this time with the taped soulful songs of Willie Nelson playing in the background.
Karolyi, 43, is something of a pixie himself—a giant pixie, at 6'2" and 185-plus—transmitting his total passion for gymnastics to his students, crackling with energy, barking commands and administering crushing bear hugs. "That's why I'm so doggone short," says Mary Lou. "He keeps patting me on the top of the head whenever I do something right. Bonk, bonk. And when he slaps me on the back, it knocks me about 15 feet. But can he ever teach! I've learned so much. With Bela, it's repetition and repetition and, 'You can do it, you can do it,' until there it is, we're doing it. Nothing escapes him."
Back in the late 1960s, when the Soviet Union was the perennial world women's gymnastics power, Karolyi and his wife, Martha, started a small gymnastics school in their native Transylvania. Bela, a national champion hammer thrower and national team handball player, had decided to pick up gymnastics and shake it vigorously. "Well," he says, "I knew nothing of sacred old gymnastics traditions then. But I had just come from an unbelievably fast and aggressive sport with the most advanced training techniques. And suddenly, here were all these cute, delicate girls, just sort of kicking up their heels and going la, la, la. Imagine it! At that time nobody had ever thought of turning them into little bombs. Into animals. Killers."
This sort of stuff is infectious, and if Karolyi weren't a gymnastics coach, he'd be absolute murder at motivational seminars. He has a tendency to pounce on life, catching it looking the other way, and to boil over with passions, especially when it comes to hunting, his second great love. Back in Transylvania, he had been permitted to own a collection of guns—a rarity in that setting—and had terrorized all the wild boar in the Carpathians. Since moving to the U.S., Karolyi and a gang of Texas pals (mostly gymnastic dads, all dying to escape the gym) have hunted all across the Southwest, with Karolyi in the lead.
"A gymnastics meet is like a hunt, in a way," Karolyi says. "It's you against them. To win, first you make your girls strong. Then they'll jump higher. Work them hard and they'll perform better. We spent half the time running outdoors in the Carpathian Mountains before we even put them on the apparatus. Too many of the girls weren't working up to their capacities at first. But then, aha! We found that we could beat tradition. By the 1975 European championships, we destroyed the Russians. Nadia beat them in all four events and the all-around—and she was only 13 years old. At the '76 Olympics, we created more sensation in five days than the Russians had in the previous 40 years. It's hard work that does it all!"
During this explanation, Karolyi has taken to dancing around, none too gracefully, like a playful bear, radiating enthusiasm, and after watching him, his gymnasts leap upon the equipment to work even harder. In the case of Retton, the results of such work are there for all to see.
Consider these moves as a preview of coming attractions:
Retton is now armed with several stunts that no other woman in the world can do. All are stunning and a bit frightening to watch: After blasting along the 80-foot runway toward the horse, her short legs a blur, she launches her own version of the sook (phonetic shortening of the Tsukahara Vault, which is named for the former Japanese men's champ who invented it), traditionally a layout somersault combined with a full twist. But somewhere high in the air—she flies some 14 feet in the course of this vault—Retton works in a second twist, which means the 1½ back somersault is combined with a double twist, her body stretched out flat like a runaway airplane propeller. The landing shakes the arena, as promised. "And that," chuckles Karolyi, "is a Mary Lou exclusive; no other woman in the world can do it."
"I flat love flying like that," Retton says. "You've got to go high, really high, to give yourself enough space to do all that stuff before you land. I fell a lot at first. But I don't anymore."
Things get even wilder on the uneven bars. There is the Retton Salto, a distinctive flip named for Mary Lou. "Let's see," says Retton. "I do a giant swing into a handstand on the high bar, and then I swoop down and belly-beat the low bar—Blam! And then I just swing back up, let go and do a front somersault in the pike position and land sitting on the high bar again." No hands. Retton had this move mastered when she came to Karolyi, but the two of them have now added a half twist, a dizzying aerial pirouette, in the middle of it. That means that her front somersault is fired off with such force that she can complete a layout half-turn and land not sitting but in still another handstand on the high bar. "We don't know what to call it yet, and I don't always hit it," she says, "but we'll have it ready for the Olympics."
Combine these tricks with a floor exercise full of such stuff as a double backward layout somersault with a full twist—only you, Mary Lou—and a soaring, double-back beam dismount, and the potential of the Retton-Karolyi conspiracy becomes clear.
Retton has had just enough international experience to be established as a distinct threat for the all-around gold, but not enough to become too widely known. She arrived in the big time with stunning quickness: In March 1983, Retton was an unknown walk-on at the McDonald's American Cup in Madison Square Garden—the top U.S. meet in terms of international draw—entered as a last-minute sub for injured teammate Dianne Durham. And before anyone could say Mary Lou who? she'd won the vault, the floor, tied for first on the bars and made off with the all-around title, scoring high nines all the way. Most important, she smoked off Natalia Yurchenko of the Soviet Union, now the world all-around champion, and Boriana Stoyanova of Bulgaria, the 1983 world vault titlist. Retton missed the world championships in October of '83 with a stress-fractured left wrist, but popped up again in December at the prestigious Chunichi Cup in Japan to win the vault and all-around.
There has been a long list of victories of varying importance since then, and as noted earlier, nobody has beaten Retton this year. The highlight of 1984—at least until the Olympics—came at the McDonald's meet in March. When the chalk dust had settled, she'd won it all again, this time with a 39.50 score out of a possible 40, including 10s on both the vault and the floor.
And now, back in Houston, Retton rolls along, preparing for the high times ahead. "Isn't this a kick?" she says. "And to think that it used to be so scary."
Between workouts it's indeed a good, if exhausting, life. Retton sleeps as if she has been poleaxed. Consider the night of last May 20 when a mean tornado swept down on the home of Paul and Pat Spiller, gymnastic "parents" with whom she resides in Houston. It was the only house on the block the tornado damaged: Five trees went through the roof.
"I was sound asleep in my upstairs bedroom; I mean, I was really tired," Retton says. "And all of a sudden, someone was shaking me and yelling, 'Get up! You've got to get up!' And I looked at my watch and said, 'Awww, come on! It's only 2:30 in the morning.' But I got up and I was sort of staggering around, yawning, and I said, like, 'Hey, everybody, what's this big tree doing in the upstairs hallway?' And so I climbed over it, like Tarzan, and I went downstairs, and the house had been split open and half flooded. And one of the Spillers said to me, 'Hey, when you sleep, you sure don't mess around!' But I made my workout that morning. You got to make your workouts." She idly twists one foot and listens approvingly as the ankle pops loudly. Then comes the knee. Snap! She grins her elfin grin at the sounds; it isn't an act, it's just her nature. It's a cruelty of television's long lens, placed well back from the action at competitions, that she photographs much chunkier than she actually is—if Retton were to crash out through home TV screens and land in the living room, one would be surprised at the impossible slenderness of her waist.
At her Houston home-away-from-home, Mary Lou lives with Paige Spiller, 15, a teammate, and her brothers, Preston, 20, and Patrick, 9, who, says Retton, "punch me and pick on me just like my own brothers."
It figures that school is not in the picture for now. She dropped out after her freshman year in high school, switching to correspondence courses. She's already almost a year behind her class—she should have finished her sophomore year by now—with little prospect of catching up. "It's a tradeoff," Retton says. "I really miss the proms and going to the games and my classmates and all, but I've got this thing I've got to do first."
Back in Fairmont, Lois sighs, "I think maybe we've lost her. I don't know. My hope is that she'll come home and finish high school after the Olympics. I mean, she's got a real good chance for a gold medal. But I just can't see her staying in gymnastics after that. And if Karolyi says she should go on, well, I'll tell you—I've got my speech all prepared for Mr. Karolyi. I mean, he's helped her enormously, but at the same time, she's helped him, and right now I figure it's an even ball game."
Flash back to Houston, where Mary Lou bursts into laughter, once more the little volcano. "We'll just have to wait and see," she says. "First I want to win." She has clearly changed since moving to Texas and becoming the bomb that Karolyi had envisioned years ago. Her previous coach, Gary Rafaloski, a gentle, quiet man, gave her up with some initial bitterness but now he cheers her on from the West Virginia sidelines, figuring she'll go all the way.
And after all, the kid is learning. She's learning Killer Gymnastics, for one thing, and brief snatches of a foreign language, for another. "Sometimes Bela will get excited and bark out something in Romanian," she says, "but if I repeat it, he'll whisper, 'No, no! Don't say that in front of Martha or she'll kill me.' And he taught me this really neat Romanian folk song. It's sort of dirty, I think. It goes like this: Zonga, Zonga, Missa Roopa Ronga...."
Karolyi looks stricken. "No, no," he says. "We'll never get your story in the magazine. Tell you what: Let's get back to training instead. We've got medals to win."
In the Retton Salto, or what's known in gymnastics as the Retton Flip, which is done on the uneven parallel bars, Mary Lou 1) swings down from a handstand on the high bar, 2) slams her midriff into the low bar and 3) rebounds from it with such force that she can let go and 4) do a front somersault in the pike position, landing seated on the high bar. As she does so, her hands are low 5), lest she need them to prevent herself from falling. But if she's well balanced upon landing—as is usually the case—she quickly raises her arms 6) as if to say: Look, judges, no hands!
In her difficult—indeed, for other women, impossible—version of the Tsukahara, Retton rotates right a half twist (twists are indicated by broken arrows; motion through a lateral plane by solid arrows) upon taking off in the layout position. After hitting the vault and snapping off, she continues through another full twist, executing a layout somersault. She adds another half twist before going into a final half somersault in the semipike position that comes complete with one more half twist.