Perfection in Pauley Pavilion
Oct. 12, 2012
By Larry Stewart
The banner headline in large bold-face type on the front page of a 40-page OLYMPICS '84 special section of the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 1, 1984 read: U.S. Pulls Off Miracle of L.A.
The story below the headline was about how the U.S. had won its first-ever Olympic gold medal in men's gymnastics with a stunning upset over world champion China. The six-man U.S. team, which included UCLA gymnasts Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord and Tim Daggett, had finished fourth in the previous year's world championships behind China, the Soviet Union and Japan.
To that point, this was unquestionably the biggest international event to ever take place in Pauley Pavilion.
But it was topped three days later when a little-known 16-year-old from West Virginia named Mary Lou Retton earned the banner headline in the Times' Olympic section as she catapulted her way into Olympic lore by scoring a perfect 10 on the vault and becoming the first U.S. women's gymnast to win a gold medal in the all-around competition.
"Pauley erupted," Retton said on the phone from her home in Houston recently. "That was the loudest reaction I've ever heard from any crowd in any arena."
She needed a perfect 10 to edge Romania's Ecaterino Szabo for the title. A 9.95 - back when scoring in international gymnastics competition was less complicated - would have meant a tie for the gold.
"I wanted to be looking down on Szabo from the medal stand, not even with her," Retton said.
"That vault changed my life. One step on the landing, one little mistake and everything would have been different."
Although Retton had clinched gold with her first vault, she still had the option of taking a second vault.
"There was no doubt I was going to take that second vault," Retton said. "In some ways, it was more important than the first one. I wanted to take it for the crowd, the competition, the Olympics."
And she stuck that one too for another 10 as the Pauley crowd erupted once again.
"Pauley Pavilion was such a big part of my Olympic experience," Retton said. "I can still vividly remember being bused over from the Olympic Village at USC to UCLA for our first day of competition and walking into Pauley to Olympic music and just being awestruck. The crowd was 99% American, all red, white and blue."
It must have gotten her competitive juices flowing, because she needed all the adrenaline she could get. Six weeks prior to the Olympic she had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery.
She said that prior to the Olympics she didn't know a lot about Pauley Pavilion other than it being the arena where UCLA played basketball. But she said of course she knew of John Wooden.
"It was neat that we trained in the Wooden Center," she said.
Retton also mentioned that her father Ronnie was a teammate of Jerry West at West Virginia. As 5-7 senior guard, Ronnie Retton got considerable playing time. A box score of the 1959 NCAA championship game in which Pete Newell's Cal team beat WVU, 71-70, shows Ronnie Retton playing in the game. He scored two points.
West remembers Ronnie Retton well.
"He was a very active, pesky player," he said. "We were a very quick team and if we got a little sluggish, he would come off the bench and get us going. He was an invaluable player on or team, and a great all-around athlete. He was also an outstanding baseball player. I recall he signed a contract with the New York Yankees. I knew Mary Lou's mother too. I think Mary Lou is a bit of both of them."
Mary Lou is one of Ronnie and Lois Retton's five children. Her older sister, Shari, was an All-American gymnast at West Virginia. A younger brother, Ronnie Jr., played baseball there.
West said he hasn't kept in contact with Mary Lou's father, but added, "We will always be friends, as will all of us who played together on that team. We have a special bond."
West didn't attend the 1984 Olympics at Pauley Pavilion, but said, "I certainly watched with interest on television."
As for the 1984 Olympic gymnastics at Pauley, somewhat forgotten is that if Retton hadn't scored a perfect 10 in the previous discipline, the floor exercise, the vault would have meant nothing. Szabo would have already clinched the gold.
Also somewhat forgotten is that, if not for Retton's all-around gold, future UCLA student Julianne McNamara would likely have emerged as the darling of the 1984 Olympics.
McNamara had won the U.S. all-around title in 1980 to earn a spot on the Olympic team, but the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games that year. In 1984, she became the first U.S. woman to win an individual gymnastics gold when she tied China's Ma Yanhong for the gold medal on the uneven bars. Both scored a 10. McNamara also placed second in the floor exercise and fourth in the all-around competition. Kathy Johnson of the U.S. was 10th in the all-around.
In 1989, McNamara married former Dodger Todd Ziele, who was traded along with Mike Piazza to the Florida Marlins in 1998.
As for the men's competition, Daggett, reached by phone, said, "For me, just going to the Olympics was a dream come true. For that dream to come to an end at UCLA and in Pauley Pavilion with is storied past was emotionally amazing.
"There's no question it gave us a home-court advantage. The crowd was amazing."
Daggett, who was a gymnastics commentator for NBC during this summer's Olympic Games, runs a gymnastics training facility for boys in Agawam, Mass., just south of his hometown of Springfield. He is married with two children, Peter, 15, and Carlie, 13.
Peter, a competitive gymnast, was named after Peter Vidmar.
"I'm still close with Mitch, but Peter and I have a special bond," Daggett said. "He is my best friend. His family took me in when I first went away to college 3,000 miles away from home."
Retton, now 44, had been living with her husband and four daughters in her hometown of Fairmont, W.Va., for the past three years, but recently moved with her family back to Houston. Her husband, former University of Texas quarterback Shannon Kelley, got a job as an assistant football coach at a new school, Houston Baptist University, which will field its first team next season.
Mary Lou first moved to Houston when she was 14 years old to train with former Romanian coach Bela Karolyi.
Retton has had two hip-replacement surgeries - one while she was still in her 30s and the other three years ago. She has had 15 surgeries in all since retiring from gymnastics. But she remains active as a motivational speaker and the mother of four daughters - Shayla, 17, McKenna, 15, Skyla, 12, and Emma, 10.
Three of the four are competitive gymnasts. "Skyla is into competitive cheerleading," Retton said. "None of the other three have Olympic aspirations -- college aspirations, but not Olympic aspirations."
Maybe that is okay. There would always be their mother's shadow. How do you top a perfect 10 that wins an Olympic gold medal? The answer is you don't.
CLick for Bruin Video