Perfect 10s a thing of the past

ATHENS, Greece -- Poor Carly Patterson. She carried comparisons to Mary Lou Retton with her into the Olympics, and now she's carrying them out.

Patterson accomplished Thursday night what no other U.S. gymnast had since Mary Lou in 1984 -- win a gold medal in the all-around competition. Patterson is 16 years old, the same age Mary Lou was when she won the hearts of millions of Americans. She beat a reigning world champion, just like Mary Lou, and she'll probably end up on a Wheaties box, too.

That's where the comparisons should end, but they won't.

Mary Lou's performance made such an impression 20 years ago in Los Angeles that she's still a recognizable face two decades later. With the Cold War still raging, the powerful pixie picked up where the "Miracle on Ice" U.S. hockey team had left off four years earlier. She made a nation believe.

Trailing Ekaterina Szabo by .15 points, Mary Lou vaulted herself in the air, into Bela Karolyi's arms, then into that exclusive club called American Icon with a perfect 10 in her final event.

"This was a beautiful moment that another young lady is winning so spectacularly and so strongly just like tonight," Karolyi said. "I would not say that's another icon. I would say that it proved that American gymnastics is prevailing, is improving and it again can be considered the best in the world."

After all, Patterson wasn't perfect. She struggled on the vault, admitted she was nervous on the beam and scored a 9.712 on the floor to win with a 38.387, just .176 better than silver-medalist Svetlana Khorkina.

But that's not Patterson's fault. A few years ago, the Federation of International Gymnastics felt too many gymnasts were scoring too many 10s so they overhauled the system, making it Mary Lou-proof.

It's not Patterson's fault that her face doesn't have a million-watt smile like Mary Lou or her hands don't pump in the air after she nails a landing like Mary Lou. Patterson is an intense gymnast but a quiet kid. Her coach isn't world-renown and doesn't give smothering bear hugs; it doesn't mean he isn't as good or that his hugs aren't as warm.

And what was she supposed to say while Khorkina was hogging all the attention during the post-medal ceremony press conference, her time in the spotlight? Patterson answered a total of three questions before she was whisked off to be drug tested.

It's not her fault, either, that the 2004 Olympics are being held a half a world away, or that the Internet was created, revealing the results to the United States while everyone was still at work. Her face will be broadcast across the country, too, but without the suspense, did anyone watch?

Patterson had to come from behind, too, just like Mary Lou. It wasn't her fault it wasn't as dramatic. She was motivated after her uncharacteristically poor performance Tuesday night was the difference between silver and gold for Team USA. But she started off slow again Thursday with a 9.375 on vault, nowhere near the top five after the first rotation. She moved to fourth after the second rotation with a 9.575 on bars. Yet when it came to the beam -- the event she struggled with at trials -- she was the only gymnast in her rotation to perform a routine with a starting value of 10. She moved into first place after she nailed it with a 9.725, a score equaled only by Khorkina on bars.

Patterson held a .260 lead over Khorkina, close to a country mile in gymnastics, but had to watch four beam routines and four bar routines -- a wait of more than 25 minutes -- before she competed on floor where she earned the high score.

Mary Lou had to face critics, too. The Russians boycotted the 1984 Games, and many wondered if Mary Lou would have beaten them, too.

Just like people now will wonder if Patterson could have beaten Mary Lou.

Mary Lou called Patterson after she won the U.S. Nationals and told Patterson she believed in her.

Patterson believed in herself Thursday night.

Now if everyone else just would.