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Women's Event Finals, Gymnastics, Los Angeles 1984

posted July 28, 2008

In the summer of 1984, it seemed that the whole world was in love with Mary Lou Retton, the all-American girl with the winning gymnastics skills and equally winning smile. She was hard not to like, that was for sure. No, those two sentences were not an accidental reposting of the beginning of Moment # 8. Moment #3 simply starts at the same place.

The potential problem with everyone getting caught up in person A is that there can be a person B who gets unfairly overlooked and/or undercredited as a result. The person who virtually disappeared into Mary Lou Retton's huge shadow in the summer of 1984 was the USA's number two gymnast at the time, Julianne McNamara.

Julianne was 17 years old in 1984, a year older than Mary Lou, and the two of them formed the heart of the USA's excellent women's gymnastics team that competed in Los Angeles. There were other fine gymnasts on that team too, notably Tracee Talavera and Kathy Johnson, but Mary Lou and Julianne were the one-two punch that led the team to an Olympic silver medal.

But you would never have known that from the press coverage, both broadcast and print. All that was talked about was Mary Lou, Mary Lou, Mary Lou. You would have thought she had single-handedly scored all the team points necessary for the medal, with her teammates just performing because it was necessary under the rules. Mary Lou this, Mary Lou that, wonderful Mary Lou. The unspoken implication was that the entire American team would have been nothing without Mary Lou, Mary Lou, Mary Lou.

All right, I confess I'm exaggerating slightly about that. The problem I had was that although I liked Mary Lou too, my favorite gymnast was Julianne, and it upset me that her considerable contributions to the team effort were quickly passed over so the broadcast or print story could get back to Mary Lou. Mary Lou was America's Sweetheart. Julianne? No one seemed to care very much.

Well, I cared. Julianne was an amazing person in her own right, and I liked her brand of gymnastics much more. Mary Lou was the original 'power gymnast.' Most of what she did was strength-based, lots of height and distance on the vault and the tumbling on floor and beam, but very little finesse. I preferred the Nadia Comaneci-type gymnastics, where power was combined with grace and style to produce routines that were both very athletic and very elegant. To me, Mary Lou was way too much like a male gymnast in a leotard. Julianne was able to perform amazing acrobatic feats while still looking like a lady. That's always been the kind of women's gymnastics I enjoy most by far.

In addition, I also liked Julianne McNamara as a person more than Mary Lou Retton. Mary Lou was overwhelmingly charismatic physically, and had a very outgoing and engaging personality to match. I found her rather intimidating, and the masculine character of her gymnastics added to that feeling. Julianne, on the other hand, was also charismatic, but in more of a girl-next-door kind of way. Like Mary Lou she had a huge beautiful smile, but while Mary Lou's smile jumped out at you, Julianne's seemed to draw you to her. In the occasional interview or article that I had seen over the previous couple of years, Julianne always came across as really sweet and personable. She was outgoing, but not overwhelming like Mary Lou. In total, she had qualities of obvious specialness, but she also had an approachability about her that Mary Lou lacked. You could imagine meeting her without feeling intimidated. So in all respects, I liked Julianne a lot more. The media's near complete emphasis on Mary Lou to the near exclusion of Julianne was thus rather frustrating to me.

During the all-around final, Julianne was forced to wait through a very long judges' conference about the previous competitor before being allowed to do her balance beam routine. The long delay apparently disrupted her concentration, for she did not perform at her best on the beam. Her score was far enough below her usual level to cause her to end up in fourth place instead of with the bronze medal. It was another frustration for me, since if the world had seen Julianne up there on the medal stand on one side of Mary Lou, they would have had to know, in spite of the chronic minimization of Julianne in the coverage, that she was also a great gymnast who deserved to get credit and praise. But no such recognition accompanies fourth place.

There was one last chance for Julianne to get at least some of her due. She had qualified for both uneven bars and floor exercise in the event finals, and on bars she was one of the very best in the world. A gold medal in one or both events would give the world a reason to remember the name Julianne McNamara, regardless of what the media did. I really, REALLY wanted that to happen!

At that time all of the women's event finals were held on a single night, with the men's finals on a different night. So Julianne would compete on both of her events in the same session. Also at that time, the scores from the compulsories were carried over as 50 percent of not only the team scores, but the all-around and event finals as well. That was good for Julianne, as she shared first place in compulsory bars with China's Ma Yanhong. This was the era of the perfect 10, and if Julianne could nail one of those on the bars this night, she would be guaranteed a gold medal and all that came with it.

She certainly had the tools to get the job done: she was known for her excellent body positions with great extension, her superbly vertical handstands, and a level of difficulty in her routine that was matched by hardly anyone in the world, and exceeded by none. Plus, she had already posted a perfect 10.0 on the bars earlier in the competition. Another one was clearly within the realm of reasonable possibility.

Yanhong preceded Julianne in the randomly drawn competing order, and I watched in a bit of dismay as she did an excellent routine with no visible flaws. The judges saw no flaws either: the score posted was a 10.0.

For just a moment I was heartbroken, since the Chinese girl had just assured herself of no worse than a tie for the gold. I had wanted Julianne to have the top step to herself, and now the best she could hope for was to share it. But this instinctive reaction quickly passed as I remembered the obvious: shared or not, it would still be a gold medal!

Gold was by no means a certainty, however. While it had been an unusual occurrence in Julianne's career, her nerves had cracked a bit during the all-around because of the delay. This situation far exceeded that in pure pressure, and with Yanhong's 10.0 already in the books, the stakes and pressure had been raised even further: like Mary Lou in the all-around, Julianne too now HAD to be perfect to win gold. Could she respond and turn in the routine of her life when she needed it most?

I was almost trembling with nervousness as she got the signal from the judges and mounted the bars. One reason that she was such a great bars artist was because she had the perfect body for it: a slender build with a relatively small torso and long arms and legs. This gave her the kind of long lines on the bars that makes a routine really flow, allowing it to be more smooth and elegant than anything that can be achieved by someone with the visibly muscular build of a Mary Lou Retton. Julianne looked amazing as she glided around the bars, hitting all of her elements as perfectly as Yanhong before her. Her handstands were absolutely vertical, her release moves done with excellent amplitude, her transfers between the bars completely solid and sure. Then all that remained was the dismount. To have any chance at a 10, she would need to stick the landing cold. She flew off the bars into the air, flipped and landed - in perfect balance and with no foot movement.

Julianne had done her part. Now it was up to the judges. I rose to my feet as I waited for the score to be posted. "Oh, please, please, please!" I whispered, thinking about all that rested on this one judgment, this one number. Then, with the camera on Julianne, the home crowd suddenly shrieked with delight, and the screen immediately switched to a shot of the scoreboard: 10.0. Julianne McNamara was a gold medalist.

I fell to my knees, pumping my fists and yelling, "YEEEEEEEEEES! YES! YES! YES!" At last, Julianne had emerged from the shadow of her more popular teammate and was now standing in the spotlight alone, in front of the whole world. I had gotten my wish. All was finally well.

In the final event, floor exercise, Mary Lou stepped out of bounds on one of her tumbling passes. The resulting .10 penalty knocked her down to the bronze medal, and gave Julianne the silver behind Romanian Ecaterina Szabo. Julianne had won a second medal and outscored Mary Lou Retton in the process. One more moment in the spotlight, and frosting on the cake for a fan like me.

As wonderful as all this was, however, it didn't change much in regards to coverage. Despite the fact that Julianne's gold on bars marked the first time any American had ever won an Olympic event final, once that rotation was over the TV coverage never came back to it that night. No interview, no medal ceremony, nothing. They finally did interview Julianne on TV the next day and showed the medal ceremony, but it was during the afternoon coverage block, where the viewership isn't nearly as high as the prime time broadcasts. Oh well, nobody ever said life was fair. In the final analysis, though, that part wasn't really important. The main thing was that, for once, Julianne McNamara wasn't just one of the '& Company' in the media's 'Mary Lou & Company' version of the US women's gymnastics team.

During the bar finals, there was a crowd shot of someone holding up a sign that read, 'JULIANNE TRULY CAN.' On that night the whole world saw, and thus knew, that she truly could. In the end, that was all that mattered.

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