ATHENS, Greece — The 20-year wait is over. America has its new Mary Lou, and her name is Carly Patterson.
The 16-year-old Patterson beat Russian superstar Svetlana Khorkina to give the United States another Olympic all-around champion Thursday night. She closed with a dazzling routine on the floor to win gymnastics’ premier event.
“It just means a whole lot,” Patterson said. “I worked my whole life to be an Olympic champion.”
She wasn’t the only one who had been waiting for this night.
Patterson is the first U.S. woman to win the all-around title since Mary Lou Retton did it in 1984, and no one was happier about it than America’s first golden girl.
“I have been waiting 20 years. Do you hear me? I have been waiting for 20 years,” Retton said in a telephone interview from the States. “The crown has been sitting and waiting for the next all-around champion. Carly Patterson, it’s yours.”
Patterson’s victory came the night after Paul Hamm won gold in the men’s all-around on the same floor. The two make the United States the second country to have both all-around champions in the same Olympics, joining the former Soviet Union.
On a riveting evening that came down to the last tumbling pass, Patterson scored a 9.712 on floor to finish with 38.387 points and defeat Khorkina by .176. Zhang Nan of China won bronze.
When he saw the result, Retton’s old coach, Bela Karolyi, jumped for joy and hugged his friends, happy to finally see a champion replace the one he coached at the Los Angeles Games.
Khorkina, who for years called herself the “Queen of Gymnastics,” still took the Olympic all-around medal that had eluded her during an entertaining and wildly successful career. It was silver, not gold, though listening to her talk, no one would have known the difference.
“I know perfectly well what I’m going to say,” Khorkina said. “I’m still an Olympic champion. That’s all.”
When it was over, she acted like a champion, running a victory lap, grabbing the Russian flag and taking it to the uneven bars, where she showed it off and dragged it across the lower bar. Patterson isn’t nearly the showwoman. Nor is she as graceful a ballerina as Khorkina. She is more athletic, though, more explosive, and on this night, she was a little bit better.
“She’s a very good gymnast with a very good coach,” Khorkina said. “I wish her to last as long as I have at the Olympic Games, and proudly to carry the title of Olympic champion.”
Like Khorkina, Patterson closed the night on the floor. On all four tumbling passes, she jumped higher than any of the other 23 women in the meet. As importantly, she pulled off perfect landings that almost always make the difference between first and second place.
Compare that to Khorkina who stumbled ever so slightly during one pirouette and didn’t have the burst off the mat to go with her trademark flamboyance.
When Patterson’s winning score was posted, coach Evgeny Marchenko lifted her on his left shoulder and paraded her in front of the fans.
“I don’t even know what to say right now,” Patterson said. “You dream about this your whole life. Then you win the gold medal. It’s just amazing.”
The other American in the competition, Courtney Kupets, finished ninth.
During the medals ceremony, Patterson sang along to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” played at the arena for the second straight night.
Khorkina, meanwhile, stared at the scoreboard and smiled at the fans, most of whom had come to see her.
As she closed her night dancing to “Acropolis Adieu,” there was a sense that this was her time, and her arena.
Once the music started, Khorkina was sexy, seductive and beautiful. Her tumbling passes were graceful and fluid, not the work of a pure jock but of a ballerina who simply works the jumps into the bigger show.
There were mistakes, though. Often in the past, they have been overlooked, a bow to a star who at times has seemed bigger than the sport. When the score, a 9.562, popped up, Khorkina nodded knowingly.
She had left the door open, and Patterson took advantage.
Waiting for the start signal, Marchenko gave Patterson a thumbs-up and she nodded back. The highlights of her routine had little to do with dance and lots to do with jumping.
On her third tumbling pass, she did two somersaults, and when they were complete, she was still hanging high enough that she could look down and pick the exact spot she wanted to land. She landed perfectly on all four passes and that was the difference between first and second.