Gymnast Mary-Lou Retton scooped five medals at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, more than any other athlete. Her success on home soil transformed her into a true American sporting icon.
The historic achievements of Romanian prodigy Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal did not go unnoticed in Fairmont, West Virginia (USA), home town of Mary-Lou Retton. Born on 24 January 1968, Retton was inspired by her East European idol, and set her mind on becoming a gymnastics champion. Later, she moved to Houston to train with Bela and Marta Karolyi, Comaneci’s former coaches, and under their strict guidance, the talented youngster rose to national and then international prominence in the early 1980s.
After dominating the US Olympic artistic gymnastics trials, Retton damaged her knee while rehearsing a floor routine and had to undergo an urgent operation. Just five weeks remained before the start of Los Angeles 1984, but somehow she managed to recover in time. In front of an enthralled crowd in the University of California’s Pauley Pavilion, Retton locked horns with Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo in the individual all-round competition. Recording perfect 10s on the floor and vault, she pipped her rival to the title by 0.05 points, becoming the first American in history to win an Olympic individual all-round gold. Not satisfied with this historic triumph, she went on to secure silver in the vault, bronze in the uneven bars and the floor, and another silver in the team event. Having won more medals than any other participant at the 1984 Games, she was named Sportswoman of the Year and Amateur Athlete of the Year by the American press.
Retton enjoyed a victorious swansong, being crowned US champion in 1985. After she retired, a park and a street in her home town were named after her. She went on to work in television, advertised a well-known brand of breakfast cereal, and in 1997 was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Prior to that, almost a decade after her Olympic success, a survey carried out by the Associated Press confirmed Retton as the joint most popular sporting figure in the USA, alongside figure skater Dorothy Hamill, who won a gold medal at the 1976 Games.
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