Gymnast Mary Lou Retton vaulted her way into gymnastics legend on this day in history, Aug. 3, 1984.
Retton, then just a 16-year-old high school sophomore, became the first American woman to win the gold medal in the Olympic all-around gymnastics competition. She received perfect 10s on both the floor and vault events, and scored a 9.850 on the balance beam and 9.800 on the uneven bars.
Retton edged out silver medalist Ecaterina Szabo of Romania by 0.05 points, said the Olympics website. In addition to becoming the first American woman to win the all-around title, she was the first winner not from Eastern Europe.
Born in West Virginia, Retton was inspired by the success of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, said the Olympics website.
Retton eventually would move to Houston to train with Comaneci’s coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, after they defected to the U.S. and opened a gym.
She experienced success at the American Cup, an international competition, but sat out the 1983 World Championships with an injury.
Retton nearly missed the 1984 Olympics with a knee injury, said the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum website.
She had surgery just weeks before the games.
“We did three months of rehabilitation in two weeks,” she recounted to the Los Angeles Times in 1994.
Despite her injured knee, Retton was particularly strong on the vault, delivering not one but two perfect 10s in the all-around final.
“I can’t describe how I felt,” said Retton, adding that she had “goosebumps.”
“I knew from the takeoff, I knew from the run — I just knew it,” she said.
At the time, gymnasts in the all-around final could vault twice, and the better score would be counted.
Retton scored 10s on both of hers.
That evening, Retton said she slept with her medal beside her.
“The first thing when I got up in the morning I checked to see if it wasn’t a dream,” she said.
Retton would leave Los Angeles with five medals out of a possible six, the most of any individual athlete at the games.
In addition to gold in the individual all-around, Retton won silver in the team final and vault, and bronze on the floor exercise and uneven bars.
She placed fourth in the balance beam final by just a tenth of a point.
Following the Olympics, Retton became a bona-fide superstar.
She was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportswoman of the Year — and adorned a Wheaties box, said the Olympic website.
She retired from competitive gymnastics in 1985.
Today she has four daughters, two of whom competed in NCAA Division 1 gymnastics.
The 1984 Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles, were boycotted by several countries, including the gymnastics powerhouse Soviet Union.
The United States had previously boycotted the 1980 games, which were held in Moscow.
The Soviet Union won the women’s gymnastics team gold medal in every Olympics the country competed in, and, at the time of the 1984 games, all but three all-around champions hailed from the USSR.
Ever since Retton’s historic victory, American gymnasts have flourished at the Olympic Games.
In 2004, 20 years after Retton’s accomplishments, Carly Patterson became the first American to win the individual all-around gold medal in a non-boycotted games.
She was followed by Nastia Liukin in 2008, Gabby Douglas in 2012, Simone Biles in 2016 and Suni Lee in 2021 (all pictured in the image above).