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Amazing Moments in Olympic History: Mary Lou Retton

Aug. 05, 2009, 1:52 p.m. (ET)

At the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, Mary Lou Retton, the girl next door with the outgoing personality, became the first American woman to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around competition.

She also captured a silver medal in the team competition, marking the first medal in that event for the U.S. women's team since 1948, and Retton captured an individual silver in the vault and bronzes in the floor exercise and the uneven bars.

The individual all-around competition at the Los Angeles Games was exceedingly close. Despite a packed house, Retton kept her cool and executed her performances well. But so did her opponents. No sooner would Retton sit in the first-place spot when another gymnast would knock her out.

The battle for the gold came down to the final event. Retton was trailing Romanian gymnast Ecaterina Szabo by .05 points. The 16-year-old American needed a perfect 10 on her vault to defeat Szabo. A 9.95 meant the two girls would share the gold medal. Anything less than a 9.95 would mean silver for Retton.

At the time, Retton was receiving guidance from the renowned gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi. Before her vault, she conferred with Karolyi. He told her he wanted to see her best vault and that it was now or never. He told her all she had to do was control her landing.

The 4-9 gymnast readied herself and sprinted toward the vault. Retton twisted and turned faultlessly as she performed her full-twisting layout double Tsukahara, and controlled the landing. Karolyi and the crowd exploded into cheers, and Retton jumped up and down in exultation. Everyone knew her vault had been flawless, including the judges. They awarded her a perfect 10.

For the 1984 Games, gymnasts executed two vaults, and the best score of the two was their final score. After Retton finished celebrating, she went back and took her second vault, just for fun. Her gold-medal victory already had been secured, and she performed another spot-on vault, eliciting even more cheers from the spectators.

Later that year Retton, who grew up in Fairmont, W.Va., was awarded the Sportswoman of the Year title by Sports Illustrated. The Associated Press named her the Amateur Athlete of the Year. She was the first woman featured on the Wheaties box, and she was the first gymnast inducted into the U.S. Olympic Committee's Hall of Fame in 1985.

Retton retired from competitive gymnastics in 1986. The following year she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. In 1993 the Associated Press issued a survey throughout the United States, and Retton was voted the Most Popular Athlete in America, nine years after winning five Olympic medals.

Now 41, Retton lives in Houston with her husband and four daughters. She still gives speeches, makes appearances and receives approximately 100 pieces of fan mail each week. Three of her daughters are following in her footsteps and participate in gymnastics, but she said she never would coach them or force them to pursue gymnastics. She much rather enjoys being the mother figure.

Although it has been 25 years since Retton competed in Los Angeles, Americans remember her for her triumph. She made a colossal impact in the sport of gymnastics and in the history of the Olympic Games, and is likely to be remembered for many, many more years to come.