NEW YORK — Gabby Douglas headlines the AT&T American Cup on Saturday, kicking off a season that she hopes ends in Rio, where she could become the first U.S. Olympic all-around champion to compete in the following Games.
But if Douglas prevails Saturday in Newark, N.J. (NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, 1 p.m. ET), she will become the second reigning U.S. Olympic all-around champion to win an American Cup.
Recall Mary Lou Retton, who at the Los Angeles 1984 Games became the first U.S. Olympic all-around champion, like Douglas at age 16.
Retton did not retire until 1986. In between, she competed at one more top-level international meet, winning the 1985 American Cup in Indianapolis.
“Winning that meant more to me than anything I think, really, in my career, because even going into the Olympics I was a relatively unknown gymnast, and I wasn’t supposed to win [in Los Angeles],” Retton said Friday. “[Romanian] Ecaterina Szabo was World champion, and she was supposed to win that [Olympic] title. So the pressure was never on me. I was always the underdog. And then going into ’85 American Cup, I was supposed to win. That’s a whole different mindset.”
Retton’s appearance at the 1985 American Cup, where she went for a three-peat at the event, was billed as a bit of a comeback story.
The TV broadcast reported she took five months off from training after the Olympics and returned to the gym for nine weeks before taking the floor at Market Square Arena with coach Bela Karolyi.
In the months after the Olympics, people wondered when Retton would return to competition.
“The American Cup appearance kind of quieted everybody down,” Retton said. “People expected me to win [the 1985 American Cup]. And if I didn’t win, oh gosh, they would have talked about me in bad ways. She’s over and she’s down. Whatever. It was hard. I’m glad that I went and had that experience because I proved to myself that I could still handle that pressure.”
The opportunities that came with winning a gold medal — such as dinners with the president and British royalty — proved too taxing for Retton to compete later in 1985 and she eventually announced her retirement in September 1986.
Retton enrolled at the University of Texas that fall, where she met Shannon Kelley, a Longhorns quarterback and her future husband.
Retton had no second thoughts about retiring with the Seoul 1988 Olympics two years away.
“I was ready,” said Retton, who worked the Seoul Games for NBC. “I knew that I was not going to be one of those athletes that’s just hanging onto the sport and couldn’t retire, couldn’t let it go. I wanted people to remember me as a winner and as a champion and not some struggling older athlete that just can’t let it go. That was important to me.”
She wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of attention that came after Los Angeles 1984.
That’s a key difference Retton sees between herself and 2012 Olympic champions Douglas and Aly Raisman, who both turned professional before the London Games.
The gymnasts of this era are more expecting and better equipped to handle the post-Olympic whirlwind.
Douglas and Raisman are favored to make the five-woman Olympic team for Rio, which will be determined in July.
No U.S. woman has made back-to-back Olympic teams since 1996 and 2000. No Olympic all-around champion has returned to compete in the following Games since Nadia Comaneci in 1980.
“Gabby and Aly, I have deep respect for those two,” Retton said. “How difficult the sport is now and to stay in at such a high level, it’s just so demanding.”