A tiny dynamo who captured hearts like a—well, like a relentless, heart-capturing butterfly net, Mary Lou Retton remains unrivaled as the preeminent figure in American sporting lore. Bouncy, wholesome, and every bit as patriotic as any Founding Father you’d like to name, even hardened killers in prison wept when she won the gold. She represented us all. The larger question is, as always, what happens to these petite contortionists, these breakers of the bounds of gravity, these flexible yet delicate dolls, once their time in the Olympic sun has passed them by? Some, like Olga Korbut, keep training and go to the next Games and win another gold before disappearing for decades only to resurface in Norcross, Georgia, of all places, on trumped-up shoplifting charges. Others, like Nadia Comaneci, “grow up” into a very fine-looking adult woman indeed, even if at least two of her parts seem to have been placed in their prominent position by a surgeon.
In Mary Lou’s case, she did what she could—and always with a positive attitude. The last three decades have found her perching on Ronald Reagan’s shoulder during a National Convention, hanging out with Leslie Nielsen in a zany movie about a bumbling police detective, and even doing her best to help revive the flagging fortunes of a universally-beloved drug store chain. She wasn’t always a success in these post-Olympic endeavors, but she always had (and still has, I would reckon) a smile on her face and that is a wonderful quality to possess. So salute her as you would the flag, because for a brief moment in 1984 she was the flag—a flesh and blood Stars and Stripes, floating in the air, yet untethered to any pole. Pure magic, I tell ya!