Of all the American stars at last summer's Olympics, 4 ft. 9 in. Mary Lou Retton probably emerged as the biggest. ``I went to Los Angeles to get my medal and that was all,'' she said here prior to the two-day McDonald's American Cup meet in Market Square Arena.
But after she won the women's gymnastics all-around title at the Games, everything just fell in place -- the awards, magazine covers, TV appearances, endorsements -- the whole celebrity package. The United States, it seemed, had fallen head over heels for this bundle of energy with the knockout smile.
The big question was, would Mary Lou be too distracted by fame to buckle down after the Olympics? Yes, predicted one sports magazine that said Retton would grow fat in '85.
Slim chance, the hungry gymnast seemed to say with a shriek of gleeful disbelief late last week. Rather than just scoff at the notion, however, the dynamo from Fairmont, West Va., set out to prove that stardom hasn't gone to her head or stomach.
``I made a resolution at the beginning of the year to cut back on my business engagements,'' she explained. ``I really have to set priorities, and I'm starting to say no to things that just aren't that important to me. Gymnastics is my life, I'm 17, and I still want to compete.''
Where better to prove her point, and show off some new material polished in Bela Karolyi's Houston gym, than at the international American Cup meet.
Sponsored by the Big Mac people she now represents, the event was the first prestigious competition of the new year -- an invita-tional affair with gymnasts from 13 countries, although none from the Soviet Union or East Germany. The meet also offered her a chance to make history as the cup's first three-time female winner, equaling the feat men's competitor Kurt Thomas achieved in 1978-79-80.
In 1983, as a last minute replacement for an injured US teammate, Mary Lou won the title to become an overnight star. She repeated last year, then made it three straight Sunday with a comfortable victory margin over China's Yu Feng and Romania's toylike Daniela Silivas, the 4 ft. 5 ft., 61 lb. pixie.
She turned in the best scores in all four events -- the vault, uneven bars, floor exercise, and balance beam -- and was particularly pleased with her effort in the latter.
``That's the best beam I ever did in my life,'' she said afterward. ``I'm not a beamer, that's just not Mary Lou. But I worked on it very hard with Bela's wife, Marta, and am really pleased with the results.''
The powerfully built Retton, who shines in the more explosive events, also took heart in her mastery of a totally new floor exercise routine, one she called ``more mature'' than the ``cutesy, cutesy number'' she'd done in L.A. While Retton was prompting all sorts of Olympic flashbacks in winning the women's title, Tim Daggett of West Springfield, Mass., was experiencing his own form of Olympic d'ej`a vu in the men's competition.
At Los Angeles he had turned in a perfect 10.0 horizontal bar routine to clinch the team gold medal for the American men. ``Lee Iacocca would have made the perfect coach of that team,'' says Mike Jacki, the US Gymnastics Federation executive director, in reference to the squad's Yankee-style determination.
In Indianapolis Daggett put his massive shoulders to work on the high bar again. After falling flat on his kisser during the warmup to the final event, he turned in a clutch, if less than perfect, performance to edge China's Yang Yueshan by 5/100ths of a point for the men's crown. US gymnasts have now won the men's title in nine of the competition's 10 years.
Japan's Koji Sotomura, the field's senior competitor at 27 and its only married one, took the bronze.
If Sotomura represented one end of the experience spectrum, certainly his teammate, Miho Shinoda, represented the other. A delicate 12-year-old, she stamped herself as a youngster to watch in the coming years by finishing fifth among the women.
For the most part, the names that became so familiar during the Olympics -- Peter Vidmar, Ecaterina Szabo, Mitch Gaylord, Koji Gushiken, and Julianne McNamara -- were notably absent here. China's popular Li Ning, a triple gold medalist at L.A., did compete, but scratched halfway through the first day with shoulder problems.
``The year after the Olympics is typically a transition year in gymnastics,'' said Bart Conner, a member of the men's gold medal-winning team and the expert commentator for CBS's American Cup coverage. ``You start seeing pretty good turnover among the athletes.''
Conner said he and some of the other Americans are ``sort of in limbo,'' weighing their future options while unwinding from a long exhibition tour that followed the Olympics.
After performing in a number of these exhibitions, both Retton and Daggett knew some mental adjustments were in store.
``Competing internationally is so much different from doing show-type routines,'' says Retton. ``In the exhibitions, if you stick your landing and smile, the crowd goes crazy.''
Daggett, a senior at UCLA, caught himself assuming this sort of relaxed outlook on the opening day of the American Cup. ``After the first few events I found myself becoming a little too calm,'' said Daggett, pleased that no one's score carried over to Sunday's final. ``That was probably from doing so many exhibitions.''
Retton's highest score in the finals was a 9.85., received in the vault and floor exercise, while Daggett's best was a 9.75 on the parallel bars. Considering that 44 perfect scores were awarded at the Los Angeles Olympics, these marks seemed a bit on the low side. There was a logical enough explanation, however.
At the end of each four-year Olympic cycle, the judging system is revised to push the sport's frontiers out further. It's the old carrot and stick business.
Interestingly, the person who came closest to a 10 in Indianapolis was not a medalist, but overall men's fifth-place finisher Dan Hayden. A freshman at Arizona State, Hayden attempts at least one trick on the horizontal bar that virtually no other male gymnast will touch because of its high degreee of difficulty and risk.
In a move right out of the big top, he swings into a double back flip, then, like a trapeze artist, grabs the bar at the last split second on his descent.
As scary as this may look, it could be the shape of things to come -- if not tomorrow, possibly by the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
Every world-class gymnast is perhaps a bit of a thrill seeker at heart, of course. The American Cup hosts learned that in arranging some post-competition sightseeing for the visiting athletes. The most eagerly anticipated activity on the itinerary? Why, a spin around the famed Indianapolis 500 Speedway, naturally.