LOS ANGELES - As an 8-year-old in Fairmont, West Virginia, Mary Lou Retton watched the 1976 Olympics with awe. She watched as Romania's Nadia Comaneci scored the first perfect 10 in Olympics gymnastics history. Retton was instantly inspired, deciding to persue her own career in gymnastics.
Fast-forward eight years later, and the Olympics were in Los Angeles. Now 16, Retton was the centerpiece of the U.S. gymnastics team. Because of the Soviet-led boycott, the individual all-around championship was up in the air; of the traditional communist gymnastics powers, only Romania was competing.
After two events of the all-around competition, Retton was in a close battle for the gold, closely trailing Romania's Ecaterina Szabó. She had become America's sweetheart, had the following of an entire country. This was the best opportunity yet for an all-around gold medalist to come from somewhere other than the Soviet bloc.
Knowing the hopes of a nation were riding on her 4-foot-8 frame, Retton remembered back to her 8-year-old self, sitting at home watching Comaneci get those perfect scores in Montreal. She stepped onto the mat for the floor excercise as an American hope. She stepped off as an Olympic legend.
Retton's perfect 10 on the floor routine amazed the country. She vaulted into the lead, instantly becoming the most famous athlete in America. But she still had one event to go to clinch the gold, and she likely needed another perfect score to ensure victory. No worries. Another perfect 10 followed, this time in the vault, and the gold was hers.
Retton won four more medals at the '84 Olympics, as team USA took advantage of the missing Soviets, but everybody remembered the all-around gold. Her fame was instant - she became the first female athlete to appear on a Wheaties box, she appeared in political ads for Ronald Reagan, she was named Sports Illustrated's Sportswoman of the Year. Nine years later, in 1993, she was named America's most popular athlete in an Associated Press poll. And it all started with an 8-year-old watching the Olympics in West Virginia.