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Women's All-around Final, Gymnastics, Los Angeles 1984

posted July 2, 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. Even though Julianne McNamara was my favorite gymnast at the time, I liked Mary Lou a lot too, and as our best hope for gold in the all-around, I was rooting for her enthusiastically when that big night came around.

Romanian Ecaterina Szabo figured to be Mary Lou's strongest challenger for the gold, and after the first two rotations Szabo was ahead by .15 points. However, Retton's best two events, floor exercise and vault, were still to come. Szabo then scored 9.90 on vault. Mary Lou's floor routine earned her a perfect 10, cutting the Romanian's lead to .05.

Then came the final rotation, with Szabo on bars and Mary Lou on vault. Szabo went first, and put up another 9.90. This meant that with another 10, Mary Lou would pass her and capture the gold. The vault she was using was a full-twisting layout Tsukahara, the most difficult vault being done by any woman in the competition. Indeed, it was a vault that was named after the man who invented it, and that at the time it was usually only attempted by men. So putting up a 10 on it would not be a walk in the park.

Everyone in the arena, and everyone watching at home knew what was at stake as Mary Lou stepped up for her first vault (they did two in those days), and knew how hard it would be. Mary Lou herself knew it best: all she needed to make her dream come true was to perfectly execute something extremely difficult, with the whole country and much of the world watching her try to do it.

Many athletes simply can't handle the pressure of a moment like that. The moment means so much that it becomes overwhelming, disrupting the concentration necessary to perform at the highest level. But some athletes actually like those moments and thrive on the pressure: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in golf, Michael Jordan in basketball, and Carl Lewis in track and field are prime examples. Mary Lou Retton is another name that can be added to that list. The need to be perfect at the Olympic games was a situation that was a perfect fit for her.

Mary Lou got the signal from the judges to proceed, and the crowd hushed as she ran down the runway toward the vaulting horse. She hit the springboard hard with her feet, launching herself into the air. She hit the vaulting horse with her hands and gave a mighty push off of it, propelling herself higher. She spun and twisted in midair, keeping flawless form all the way, and then her feet hit the landing mat - and didn't move.

The crowd erupted in a deafening roar. Mary Lou had responded to the pressure and done the vault as perfectly as it could be done. Everyone in the arena, and undoubtedly most of those watching around the world, knew she deserved a perfect 10 - and after half a minute or so, the judges confirmed that they agreed. Mary Lou had gotten her perfect 10, and had become the first American woman ever to be Olympic all-around champion. Her perfect, gold-medal-winning effort on the last rotation was soon after dubbed the 'Vault Without Fault.' Gymnastics and Olympics fans still refer to it that way today, and always will.

Watching at home, I joined the crowd in standing and cheering Mary Lou's accomplishment. It was truly a magical moment.

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