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London 2012 Olympics: Mary Lou Retton, America's Greatest Gymnast of All Time

February 17, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 272

The Greatest Athlete in West Virginia

State History

The American state of West Virginia has been blessed with a great natural beauty ---it can be called America's land of mountains--- but also with extraordinary individuals such as Pearl S. Buck ---a sinophile who received the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature in the late 1930s, becoming one of the first women on Earth to win that distinction--- and Mary Lou Retton, widely regarded as one of the greatest female gymnasts of all time, alongside Nadia Comaneci of Romania and Olga Korbut of the Soviet Union -what is now the Russian Federation. Miss Retton lost the 1983 World Cup in Hungary but succeeded in becoming an Olympic champ in 1984. Over an athletic career that spanned four years, from 1982 through 1985, she won more than ten international and national championships.

Toward the end of the 1920s, women began competing in gymnastics at the Games of the IX Olympiad in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but the United States of America had not a good performance until August 1984 when Miss Retton shocked the Planet after earning five medals in the Gymnastics Tournament at the Games of the 23rd Olympiad in Los Angeles (CA), during a duel with Romania's Ecaterina Szabo, the big favorite in the Summer Olympics. It was the beginning of a new era for America's gymnastics.

A Hard-working Person

Born in Fairmont (WV), on January 24, 1968, she briefly attended Senior High School in her hometown. Around the turn of the 1970s, Mary Lou Retton discovered her passion for gymnastics when she admired Romania's gymnast Nadia Comaneci (both have some things in common), one of the greatest sportswomen in the history of the Olympic Summer Games. Shortly afterwards, she began to take lessons in gymnastics.

After becoming a hardworking person, Retton left Fairmont for Houston (Texas), beginning to build her reputation as one of America's most respected athletes. There she trained under the guidance of Bela Karolyi, a former scout for Romania's Olympic gymnastic squad during Nicolae Ceausescu's Marxist regime. Bela significantly contributed to Romania's sporting success on the world stage. By 1981, however, he and his wife, Marta, sought political asylum in the States. From then onwards, Karolyi's family has won several trophies with the US squad.

At the age of fifteen, Miss Retton was headed for a big international career. Thus, she left Texas to enter the international circuit at a time when her country was defeated by Eastern Europe and Japan in the women's gymnastics competitions. In the face of a vigorous program in the 1970s, the US women's squad had poor results in the world meets. At that time, with the relaxing of some U.S.-Iron Curtain restrictions, America --more than 30 States-- had a chance to see some of East Europe's finest gymnasts. By early 1976, Karolyi and his countrywomen, among them Comaneci, made a trip to five American States, including New Mexico, New York and Arizona. Previously, by March 1973, Olga Korbut --who once said "America is different than I expected. I like it"-- and her fellow sportswomen left Moscow for the States to promote the sport.

The Greatest: Mary Lou Retton

By 1983, Miss Retton already possessed a virtuoso technique, but she could not compete at the Budapest World Artistic Gymnastics Championships because of an injury. However, there were surprising results in the following months. Less than a year, she was considered by many to be the United States' greatest female gymnast.

With her prodigious technical skills and highly charged performance quality, astonishingly Miss Retton was awarded a gold medal in the American Cup, impressing sportswriters and sports commentators -an event that had been won by Comaneci in 1976--- in the pre-Olympic year 1983. There, she began to eclipse her fellow team-mates. Nevertheless, media interest in Retton intensified when she returned from the US Olympic trials with other good news: Qualified for the upcoming Summer Games-her first and last Olympian participation. On the journey to the Los Angeles Olympics and beyond, she won the National Championships upon winning the 1984 American Cup for the second time in a row.

While the Soviet Bloc ---from Cuba and Laos to the USSR and Bulgaria-- boycotted the 1984 Games, Romania and Yugoslavia ---currently Serbia- were the only Communist countries that competed at California. Due to this, the Romanian Olympian gymnastic team participated with its global stars; the team's roster included top athletes such as Ecaterina Szabo, Simona Pauca, Laura Cutina, Lavina Agache, Cristina Elena Grigoras, and Mihaela Stanulet. In the 1970s and 1980s, Romania had become the leading force in Olympics gymnastics, having defeated the Soviet team at the 1976 Olympiad with Miss Comaneci --one of Retton's early models. At the 1983 World Championships in Hungary, the Romanian squad had captured seven medals (1 gold, 2 silver, 4 bronze).

At the XXIII Olympiad, the United States of America had one of its most outstanding female teams in gymnastics history -made up of four prominent athletes (Retton, Julianne McNamara, Tracee Talavera, and Katty Johnson). In the Gymnastics Championship at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, the smaller Mary Lou Retton, for example, reached the pinnacle as she became the first non-Eastern European to win an Olympian title in the women's all-around, following a win over Ecaterina Szabo. During the event, she stole the show and hearts of the audience. The winner of the all-around gold medal is often seen as the "Queen of the Summer Games" as occurred with Vera Caslavska in 1968 and Comaneci in 1976, respectively.

In the multi-sport event, the versatile Retton also had the distinction to be the first U.S. gymnast -male of female-- to win a gold medal since the early 1930s. Besides capturing the Olympic title, this daughter of West Virginia added four more medals to reinforce her credentials as one of the world's finest athletes since 1900 when sportswomen were allowed to participate in the Olympiad. Miss Retton gained two silver medals for the team competition (with 391, 20 points and after defeating China) and vault (19,850 points) and two bronzes in individual competition on the bars (19,800 points) and floor exercise (19,775). Since then, the XXIII Olympiad made Retton an internationally known figure, gaining fans around the globe, including America's leader Ronald Reagan.

Elected To The International Gymnastics Hall of Fame

In the wake of her triumph at California, Retton was a red-carpet guest of the President Ronald Reagan in the White House, beginning a lasting friendship with the U.S. leader and close ties to Republican Party. But also there were other honors. For providing the most memorable image of America's Olympic victory, she was elected "Sportswoman of the Year " by Sports Illustrated in late 1984. Likewise, a park in her hometown was named in her honour.

American fans were devastated when Miss Retton announced her retirement in 1985. Unlike Nadia Comaneci-who had over eight years experience in gymnastics-and Olga Korbut, she made the decision to leave the sport at the peak of an astonishing career. During her time away from gymnastics, she has become a television analyst.

Despite her brief Olympic career of four years, her legacy as one of the 20th Century's greatest gymnasts remains in America's sporting system. A few weeks after Retton's win, gymnastic events began to flourish across the United States with thousands of participants in schools, academies, and athletic clubs. From 1984 on, the US women's team has won 24 Olympian medals (5 gold, 12 silver, 7 bronze) with many world-class gymnasts such as Carly Rae Patterson (Louisiana), Shaw Johnson (Iowa), and Shannon Miller (Oklahoma).

By 1997, Mary Lou Retton was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

Alejandro Guevara Onofre: Freelance writer. Alejandro is author of a host of articles/essays about over 220 countries and dependencies (and American States as well), from ecology, history, tourism and national heroes to Olympic sports, foreign relations, and wildlife. In addition, he has published some books on women's rights, among them "History of the Women of the United States" and "Famous Americans."

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