By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 4, 1999
The competition for the Olympic individual all-around gymnastics gold is a maelstrom of activity, with uneven parallel bars, floor exercises, balance beam and vault competition going on simultaneously.
Still, there is a finish line of sorts: the numbers the judges post for each performer in each category. As the competition unfolds, those grades separate the best from the rest.
So it was on Aug. 3, 1984, in the Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus that 36 finalists for the gold medal at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics evolved into a two-woman duel: Ecaterina Szabo, the acknowledged favorite from Romania; and Mary Lou Retton, considered the United States' best hope for a medal.
U.S. women never had won gymnastics gold in any individual event, in the all-around (a combination of the four events) or in the team competition.
And the 4-foot-9, 92-pound Retton never had participated in a major international event.
And she was eight weeks removed from arthroscopic surgery on her right knee.
Half of each gymnast's total from earlier team competition is included in the individual all-around. Romania had beaten the United States in team competition. But Retton came away with a lead of 15-hundredths of a point over Szabo.
They would not go head to head. Szabo was in the group of nine gymnasts starting the circuit on the balance beam; Retton began on the uneven bars.
Szabo scored a perfect 10 and pulled into a tie with Retton after the first round.
Szabo took the lead with 9.95 in the floor exercise to Retton's 9.80 on the balance beam.
Retton scored 10 in the floor exercise to Szabo's 9.90 in the vault.
Szabo scored 9.90 on the uneven bars. Now only Retton's vault remained.
The math was simple: 10 would give Retton the gold; 9.95 and she would share it with Szabo; 9.90 or lower and the gold medal would be Szabo's.
Retton's coach was Bela Karolyi, who eight years earlier had guided Romania's Nadia Comeneci to seven 10s at the Montreal Olympics and later had defected.
"You're going to do it!" he shouted at Retton. "I know you can do it! Now or never, okay?"
She smiled at Karolyi. "Okay," she said.
The 13,000 spectators fell silent.
Retton stepped to the mat, studied the pommel horse and began her run.
Put simply, she nailed it, hitting the horse with both hands, spinning over it and sticking her landing -- feet hitting the floor and not moving. She stretched her arms in triumph.
The crowd went crazy.
For 30 seconds, everyone awaited the judges' scores, then the spectators erupted again.
She got her 10. Her gold. She was America's first overall women's gymnastics champion. She also won silver in the vault and bronzes in uneven parallel bars and floor exercises and was a member of the silver-medal team. Her five medals were the most won by any athlete at the Los Angeles Games.
A postscript: Each gymnast has two attempts at the vault with the lower one discarded. Retton didn't have to do it again.
But she did -- and got another 10.