Mary lou knew. One year ago Mary Lou Retton wrote her prediction on a gymnastics poster that's hanging in 16-year-old Carly Patterson's room in Allen, Texas. I SAW YOU WIN SILVER AT THE WORLDS BUT I'LL SEE THE GOLD ON YOU IN ATHENS, the American icon scrawled clairvoyantly. ¬∂ And so it came to pass last Thursday, when the poised and saucy Patterson became the first American woman to win the all-around Olympic title since Retton did so in 1984. The first phone call Patterson made after she'd won went to Retton, one pepper pot to another, who told Patterson she'd been waiting to pass the all-around crown for the last 20 years, as if it had been sitting in a corner of her garage, gathering dust. "Carly Patterson," Retton said, "it's yours!" ¬∂ Those words will haunt the woman whose pouting presence brought drama to the event, Russia's gauntSvetlana Khorkina, a 25-year-old diva whose slender 5'5" frame was a stark contrast to that of 5-foot Patterson, who is shaped like a Snickers bar. Khorkina won her first gold medal in 1996, in the uneven bars, when Patterson was eight, and desperately wanted her first Olympic all-around title to add to a store of 11 world and Olympic gold medals. Regal and arrogant, Khorkina has made a career of demanding the spotlight, preening, sulking and posturing as she struts on her stage. At the 2003 world championships in Anaheim she edged the American by .188 of a point, and then the part-time model self-centeredly passed the time at the medalists' press conference by showing Patterson photos of her latest magazine shoot.
If Khorkina thought she could intimidate Patterson, though, she was mistaken. With her ponytail and bright smile, Patterson looks like a cupcake, but she's a tough cookie. She competed in last year's worlds with an undiagnosed stress fracture in her left elbow. "That's Carly," says Natalie Patterson, Carly's mother, a former gymnast and a registered nurse. "Afterward her attitude was, If I can do that, I can do anything."
It was Patterson's mental toughness that first drew the attention of her coach, Evgeny Marchenko, who has a gym outside Dallas. "As soon as she came to us four years ago, I thought, She's the one, my first Olympic champion," Marchenko says. "From the start she was able to perform with all the cameras and people and pressure. She's a very competitive girl. After she makes a mistake, she fights back."
Patterson has had to fight back all season. She fell off the beam twice at the U.S. Olympic trials, failing to secure one of the two automatic berths. That raised questions about whether she could live up to all the "next Mary Lou" hype, questions that surfaced again early last week during the women's team finals. Patterson, the only American to compete on all four apparatuses, had subpar performances on the high bar and vault as the favored U.S. women finished second to the Romanians. "She was disappointed after the team competition," said Natalie, "but she motivates herself. For the all-around she knew it was time to put the smile back on and go after it."
The smile came off after Patterson landed outside the lines on her vault in the first event of the all-around, a .2 deduction, and scored just 9.375. Khorkina, though, failed to distance herself from her chief rival, scoring 9.462 on the same apparatus despite a small wobble on her landing. She responded as only Khorkina could, by glaring at the judges. And when she didn't like her score for the beam, she stuck out her tongue at the scoreboard. "I think I'd have to slap my daughter if she did that," Natalie said later.
But it was Carly who put the Russian in her place. Patterson began her comeback with a rock-solid performance on the beam, scoring a 9.725 that gave her the lead. On the deciding floor exercise, the judges faced a clear choice: the athletic, powerful, clean tumbling passes of Patterson, or Khorkina's balletic, graceful sequences that incorporated fewer twists and flips, but more art. They chose high voltage over high drama. Patterson won.
What goes around comes around, and at the medalists' press conference Patterson unwittingly stung Khorkina when she said, "I've been dreaming about this my whole life." Khorkina, who'd harbored the same dream about 10 years longer, raised her eyebrows at the remark, much as she'd been doing all night. She was, for once, a sympathetic figure. Her time had passed.
And Patterson's? Like Retton, it's highly unlikely she'll return in four years to defend her title. No one expects her to compete much longer. One Olympics. A team silver, an individual silver in the balance beam and the precious all-around gold. It's over so quickly in women's gymnastics. Patterson didn't even march in the opening ceremonies, and she'll fly home before the Games end. She never even had a chance to go shopping, too exhausted to join her teammates at The Plaka when they finally, on Friday, had a day off. When Natalie offered to buy her a souvenir bracelet or necklace from Athens, Carly shook her head and fingered the gold medal around her neck. "This is all I wanted, right here."