Before Mary Lou Retton , before Nadia Comaneci , even before Olga Korbut came the gymnast whose prodigious talent and upbeat personality served to make her a representative of her sport. America's Cathy Rigby never won an Olympic medal, but she was much-honored in international competition and helped boost gymnastics in the United States. Following her competitive career, Rigby remained in the public eye, recreating herself as a musical-comedy actress best known for her athletic portrayal of the boy who would not grow up, Peter Pan. At the same time, Rigby became an advocate for healthy eating, freely discussing her own battles with anorexia and bulimia.
Talented, But Torn
Born in Long Beach, California, to two aerospace specialists, Cathy Rigby was a spirited child who turned first to ballet to channel her energy. At age nine she discovered gymnastics—still a relatively low-profile activity in the early 1960s. Rigby showed early talent at tumbling, but found herself in the midst of a power struggle between her father and her coach. Each man wanted to direct the child's talent, but fate intervened when Rigby's father, Paul, an alcoholic, lost his job. "Life was hell for a long time," Rigby recalled in a People interview with Mark Goodman. "Gymnastics was a way to be away from home, but it too had its problems."
Chief among those problems was the issue of Rigby's weight. Though decidedly on the petite size—she stood four-foot-eleven—the teenager was informed that her ideal weight was not to exceed 89 pounds, far less than her normal weight. At first Rigby attempted to control her size through diet. "Sometimes I ate only one meal a day, even though I was practicing eight hours a day and needed food to be strong" she noted in a cautionary article she wrote for Sports Illustrated for Kids. "Sometimes
I didn't eat for a week and drank only apple juice. I often felt tired and dizzy. Sometimes I felt so weak, I fainted. But I lost weight."
At sixteen a maturing Rigby gained ten pounds. Weighing in at 105, the gymnast felt, she told Goodman, that "my identity was threatened." A bout with anorexia (curtailing eating) led to a case of bulimia (purging food before digestion). It was the beginning of a vicious cycle that lasted more than a decade. At her lowest point, Rigby weighed only 79 pounds and was hospitalized twice with coronary episodes.
Off to the Olympics
None of this information was made available to Rigby's fans at the time. She was far better known the embodiment of health and fitness, the youngest and smallest member of the U.S. gymnastics team competing in Mexico City in 1968. Competing in the four divisions of gymnastics—floor exercise, balance beam, vaulting, and uneven bars—Rigby finished sixteenth, the best-ever placement of an American in a sport more commonly dominated by Eastern European women.
Rigby's success in Mexico City heralded a four-year streak of gymnastics championships in the U.S. and abroad. The young woman took home honors in various contests, most notably in 1970 when Rigby became the first American of either gender to win a gold medal at the World Championships held in Yugoslavia. As her profile increased, Rigby increasingly became known as the woman to beat in the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany. At nineteen, Rigby was again an Olympian, even though she could not curtail her binging and purging. Olympic glory, however, was not in her future. When the scores were tallied, gold medalist Korbut had stolen the spotlight as gymnastics' newest gamine. But even though Rigby had again set the record as the highest-placed American, finishing tenth, the pre-Olympics publicity—including a Life cover story—led her to feel like a failure. She retired from competition and married Tommy Mason, himself an ex-athlete.
Hiding a Painful Secret
Now a recognizable figure, Rigby embarked on a new career as a gymnastics commentator while she started her family. The early days of post-athletic training proved difficult, she related in a 1984 People article. "I no longer had a goal and all I was doing was eating and throwing up. Everybody thought I had the most successful life: I had a career working with ABC Sports, I was doing TV movies … and commercials, and the money was coming in." Rigby struggled to maintain this "perfect" image, saying she hid her condition from her husband and secretly consumed 10,000 calories a day in fast food. "I took a voice lesson every week," she told the People reporter, "and I can tell you where every McDonald's and Jack-in-the-Box was along the way—and every bathroom where I could get rid of the food."
During Rigby's pregnancy with her first son, Bucky, the former athlete gained only eleven pounds. Though she was praised for her self-discipline, some internal damage was done. Rigby's son was born small, and because of her lack of body fat Rigby could not produce enough milk to nurse him for more than a month. After landing in the hospital with an electrolyte balance problem, Rigby determined to improve her health in time to have her next child. She gained twenty-five pounds this time and was able to successfully nurse her second son, Ryan, for four months. But Rigby's bulimia recurred shortly after.
At the same time, Rigby was considering her professional future. "When I got out of gymnastics and retired at the age of [nineteen], I thought, What else am I going to do with my life?" she said in a Back Stage West interview with Rob Kendt. "I started doing episodic television, where I'd always play the Russian gymnast or whatever, and someone recommended I take voice and acting lessons. I studied for seven years before I had the courage to really step onstage." Rigby approached acting as she did gymnastics. "I knew I could get better if I just worked at it," she told Goodman. "It's that athlete's obsessiveness—the need to prove yourself and work harder than anyone else."
Flying High as Peter Pan
As her performing talent developed Rigby was finding herself cast in musicals where she could display her range. She starred in such shows as Meet Me in St. Louis, They're Playing Our Song, and South Pacific. But her best-known role came with a lavish revival of Peter Pan that made it to Broadway in 1991 (she had done an arena version of the show as early as 1974). The title role seemed tailor-made for Rigby, who not only mastered the strenuous flying sequences but also added her own signature flourishes, such as using a stairway railing as a balance beam. Critics were impressed: Martin Schaeffer of Back Stage commented on Rigby's "surprisingly strong performance." Rigby's voice "is strong," he noted, "and she's able to muster the needed degree of poignancy for such evergreens as [the ballad] 'Neverland.'" An "all-around delight" is how Nelson Pressley of Washington Times saw Rigby in a 1998 tour. "She is more than merely cute as Peter Pan. She knows the magical boy is a bit of a brat and deeply lonely, and these darker qualities come through easily." Rigby was nominated for the 1991 Tony Award as best musical actress, the first Olympian to be so recognized.
|1952||Born December 12, in Long Beach, California|
|1961||Begins gymnastics training|
|1968||Represents U.S. at Olympic summer games, Mexico City, Mexico|
|1972||Represents U.S. at Olympic summer games, Munich, Germany|
|1972||Retires from gymnastics competition|
|1972||Begins career as commentator and actress|
|1973||Marries first husband, Tommy Mason|
|1974||Stage debut in arena version of Peter Pan|
|1982||Makes public her longtime eating disorder|
|1982||Marries second husband, Tom McCoy|
|1991||Broadway debut in Peter Pan|
|1997||Appears in television movie, Perfect Body|
|1998||Narrates video Cathy Rigby on Eating Disorders|
|2000||Produces video version of Peter Pan|
|2002||Appears in Seussical: The Musical|
There seemed but one hurdle left for the athlete—conquering her eating disorder. In 1981, with her marriage to Mason dissolving, Rigby met fellow actor Tom McCoy, who encouraged her to face her problem. Part of his intervention was based on pure "vanity," as Rigby noted in People. "He said, 'You [have] circles under your eyes, your hair is falling out and you look older.' For the first time I listened to somebody." Rigby and McCoy married, and with psychiatric help she finally was cured of her bulimia. The couple went on to have two daughters, Theresa and Kaitlin, while Rigby added health advocate to her credentials. To that end, she took a role in a 1997 television movie Perfect Body, playing a gymnastics coach who warns a young girl of the dangers of starving herself to attain an unreasonable weight. She also narrated a video, Cathy Rigby on Eating Disorders.
By 1998 Rigby—healthy and accomplished—had been performing on-and-off in Peter Pan for twenty years. But even after two decades "she never seems to be going through the paces as she charms the Darling children and the audience with her tough-talking, good-hearted attitude," according to Variety reviewer Christopher Isherwood. "Her affection for the role seems freshly minted, and her exuberant singing is wining. The show really takes wing whenever she does." Rigby admitted in Kendt's article, "I love doing long runs, because some nights you go out there and … it just happens. You're just alive, and no matter how you feel that day, it works."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1968||Highest-placed American (sixteenth), Olympic summer games|
|1968||World Cup gold medalist|
|1970||U.S. Championships gold medalist|
|1970||World Championships silver medalist|
|1971||World Cup gold medalist and champion|
|1971||Riga Cup gold and bronze medalist|
|1971||South African Cup all-around champion|
|1971||U.S.-U.S.S.R. Dual Meet champion, floor exercise|
|1972||Highest-placed American (tenth), Olympic summer games|
|1972||U.S. Championships gold, silver, and bronze medalist|
|1972||Appeared on cover of Life magazine|
|1991||Tony Award nomination, Peter Pan|
|1998||Inducted into International Gymnastics Hall of Fame|
|2001||Ovation Award, Theatre L.A. board of governors|
Address: McCoy Rigby Entertainment, 110 East. Wilshire Ave., Ste. 200, Fullerton, CA 92832. Phone:(714) 525-8388.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Gale, 2002.
Churnin, Nancy. "Cathy Rigby Finds Her Inner Child in 'Peter Pan.'" Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service. (October 4, 2000).
Goodman, Mark. "Cathy Rigby, Flying High." People. (May 6, 1991).
Kelleher, Terry. "Perfect Body." People. (September 8, 1997).
Kendt, Rob. "Local Heroes." Back Stage West. (November 8, 2001).
Life. (May 5, 1972).
Pressley, Nelson. "Rigby Lifts 'Peter Pan' to Satisfying Heights." Washington Times. (February 13, 1998).
Rigby, Cathy. "The Worst Day I Ever Had." Sports Illustrated for Kids. (August, 1994).
Rigby, Cathy. "A Onetime Olympic Gymnast Over-comes the Bulimia That Threatened Her Life." People. (August 13, 1984).
Roberts, Terri. "Peter Pan." Back Stage West. (December 7, 2000).
Schaeffer, Martin. "Peter Pan." Back Stage. (January 4, 1991).
Sketch by Susan Salter
Where Is She Now?
After playing 2,500 performances of Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby committed her production to video in 2000. When not acting, she holds the title of Artistic Producing Director for McCoy Rigby Entertainment, a stage production company she runs with her husband, Tom McCoy, in Fullerton, California. Rigby's contribution to theatre was recognized with the 2001 Ovation Award from Theatre L.A. In 2002, approaching age fifty, she showed no sign of slowing down, taking the part of the mischievous Cat in the Hat in the Broadway and touring companies of Seussical: The Musical.
Rigby is the third of five children of Paul Rigby, an aeronautical engineer, and Anita Peters Rigby, an aerospace materials analyst. Rigby's gymnastics career began in 1961 when her father signed her up for a trampoline class. Although she was just nine, her fearlessness and talent attracted the attention of Coach Bud Marquette, a gymnastics champion in the 1930s who ran one of the best gymnastics training programs in the United States. In 1963, when Rigby was eleven years old, Marquette invited her to become a member of his Southern California Acrobatic Team (SCATS), located in Long Beach, California. Two years later Rigby was touring and performing in gymnastics exhibitions throughout the United States with SCATS. In 1967 at her first official gymnastics meet, the Midwest Open in Chicago, she placed second in her age group.
Under Marquette's coaching Rigby qualified for the 1968 U.S. Olympic women's gymnastic team that competed in Mexico City. At fifteen she was the team's youngest member. Cute with a radiant smile, Rigby was courted by the media and public. Rigby came in sixteenth in overall scoring, the most points ever scored by an American woman gymnast. Four feet, eleven inches tall, with blond pigtails, she enthralled the public with her fearless, well-executed moves. Her pixie-like performance changed the face of women's gymnastics. After Rigby, aerobatic, childlike performers such as Russia's Olga Korbut and Romania's Nadia Comaneci would come to dominate Olympic women's gymnastics.
After the 1968 Olympic Games, Rigby competed in international competition in preparation for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. At the first World Cup held in 1968, she won the gymnastic championship and became a gold medallist with a record score of 38.5 points out of a possible 40. That same year she toured Europe with her SCATS team and became a favorite of the European press. The German media adoringly referred to her as "Cookie," and the Swiss press called her "the American whirlwind."
Still in high school, Rigby was attending classes, competing in gymnastics competitions, and training seven or eight hours a day for the Olympics. This hectic schedule left no time for a social life, but she still managed to graduate from Los Alamitos High School in 1971 with a B average. She then briefly attended Long Beach City College, dropping out to train full-time for the 1972 Olympics.
In 1970 at the U.S. championships Rigby was the All-Around gold medalist. That same year at the World Championships held in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, she won a silver medal for the balance beam. She also became the first American gymnast, male or female, ever to win a medal in the World Championships. In 1971 she won numerous medals for national and international competition. She earned gold medals for all-around, vaulting, balance beam, floor exercises, and uneven bars, becoming the World Cup Champion. At the Riga Cup in Latvia, she won a gold medal for the balance beam and two bronze medals for all-around and for the uneven bars. At the South African Cup Championship, she won all-around, and at the US-USSR Dual Meet Championships she won the floor exercises. For the first time, it looked as if the United States might be a medal contender at the 1972 Olympic Games.
Affectionately called "Shrimp" and "Peanut" by her coach, and loved by the American public, Rigby's life seemed idyllic. But the reality was very different. Beginning in the late 1960s, she developed an eating disorder. Rigby felt that her coach really did not want her to grow up. She knew that Marquette worried that if her body changed during puberty, the added weight would change her center of gravity and affect her performance. Coach, parental, and public expectations for Rigby to win a medal at the 1972 Olympics put her under tremendous pressure. To win she believed that she had to maintain her girlish, ninety-pound weight. When her weight shot up to 105 pounds, she panicked. Obsessed with losing weight, Rigby began a practice of bingeing on food and then making herself throw up. Unfortunately, little was known about eating disorders in the 1960s, and she suffered from bulimia for twelve years. At one point she weighed only seventy-nine pounds. Twice she was hospitalized with serious health problems. Since 1981 Rigby has shared her story with the public in hopes of educating others about the disease and its health problems.
At the 1972 U.S. Olympic try-outs in Terre Haute, Indiana, all eyes were on Rigby. On the third day of competition, she fell while landing a flip during the floor exercises, twisting her right ankle and pulling the ligaments. She was unable to compete the final day of the trials. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Olympic gymnastics committee named her to the six-member Olympic team anyway.
Rigby was the focus of media coverage at home and abroad. She made guest appearances on major television shows such as The Johnny Carson Show, The Dick Cavett Show, and What's My Line? Her picture appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and she was the subject of a feature article in Sports Illustrated. Rigby's picture also appeared on the front page of European newspapers, where one newspaper referred to her as "one in a million."
At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the United States came in fourth in all-around competition, the highest ranking ever achieved. Rigby improved her overall performance from sixteenth at the 1968 Olympics to tenth place in 1972, but it was a bitter disappointment for Rigby. Her performance was overshadowed by a new Olympic gymnastics pigtail sensation, Russia's seventeen-year-old Olga Korbut. Korbut won three gold and two silver medals and made history by being the first person to do a backward somersault on the uneven bars.
The Los Angeles Times named Rigby the 1972 Sports-woman of the Year. It is largely due to her that gymnastics became popular in the United States. From 1970 to 1973, high school gymnastics programs doubled in number. After the 1972 Olympics, Rigby retired from competition and formed her own gymnastics academy. She also served as an Olympic sports commentator for American Broadcasting Company (ABC) sports. ABC's Wide World of Sports, for its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1986, listed Rigby as one of the twenty-five most influential women in sports. In 1998 she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Rigby is involved in charitable work with the Special Olympics, the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, The Will Rogers Institute, Mercy Corps International, and the National Center for the Prevention of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Rigby's acting career began in 1974 when she played Peter Pan in a National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television program of the same name. Since then she has appeared in numerous musicals, but she is probably best known for her Broadway performance in Peter Pan, from 1998 to 1999, for which she received a Tony nomination. Rigby has four children: two sons from her 1973–1981 marriage to Tom Mason, a former All-Pro running back for the Washington Redskins, and two daughters with her current husband, Tom McCoy, whom she married in 1982.
In the 1960s Rigby drew worldwide attention for American gymnastics and made the sport popular in the United States. Although she didn't win a medal at the 1968 Olympics, she scored higher than any prior U.S. gymnast. Her aerobatic performance is credited with revolutionizing women's international gymnastics competition.
A brief biography of Rigby is Linda Jacobs, Cathy Rigby on the Beam (1975). References for Rigby's gymnastics career include Irwin Stambler, Women in Sports: The Stories of Twelve Great American Athletes (1975), and Anne J. Johnson, Great Women in Sports (1996). Articles about Rigby are "Little Big Women: Catching Up with Cathy Rigby," Woman Sports (Oct. 1980), and "Cathy Rigby, Flying High," People (6 May 1991). See also "Cathy Rigby," Life (5 May 1972); and Anita Verschoth, "Sugar and Spice—and Iron," Sports Illustrated (21 Aug. 1972).
Gai Ingham Berlage
(b. 12 December 1952 in Long Beach, California), two-time Olympic gymnast and the first American to win a medal in an international gymnastics competition, who later became known as a sports commentator, actress, singer, and motivational speaker.
Rigby, born to Paul Rigby, an aeronautical engineer, and Anita Peters Rigby, a materials analyst, was the third of five children. She was born prematurely, weighing four pounds, and with two collapsed lungs. Her early years were fraught with bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis. But Rigby was a fighter and a competitor from birth. She purportedly roller-skated at eighteen months and nearly always delivered the last punch in altercations with her older siblings.
By age ten Rigby knew gymnastics was her sport. Her tumbling coach referred the eleven-year-old Rigby and her father to Bud Marquette, the well-known coach of the Southern California Acro Team (SCAT). Marquette told Sports Illustrated that Rigby came to him "looking like a ragamuffin who could do only cartwheels." In two months she was better than girls who had been training for two years. Marquette also noted that Rigby was totally dedicated to gymnastics and completely fearless when she performed.
Rigby's life during these years was not easy. She practiced eight hours each day, seven days a week, often leaving the gymnasium for two hours in the afternoon to prepare dinner for her family. Her mother had contracted poliomyelitis during her second pregnancy and could not walk for several years.
On occasion, tension developed between Marquette and Rigby's father about training tactics. Team travel both at home and abroad was frequent. As Rigby moved into puberty, her body matured and she gained weight. She became bulimic at approximately age fifteen and remained so for twelve years; she was hospitalized twice for serious complications. Nevertheless, she graduated from Los Alamitos High School in 1971 with a "B" average and attended California's Long Beach City College briefly until gymnastics commitments forced her to withdraw.
In 1967 Rigby took second place in her age group in the Midwest Open in Chicago, her first meet. In the 1968 World Cup she was a gold medalist and a World Cup champion. In the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Rigby, at four feet, eleven inches tall, looked more like the U.S. team's mascot than a serious contender. However, she placed sixteenth and emerged from the Olympic Games as a new star in gymnastics, an inspiration to all U.S. gymnasts, and a charmer to her public.
At the 1970 World Games in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, Rigby made gymnastics history as the first U.S. gymnast to win a medal in world championships. She received the silver medal for her performance on the balance beam. In 1971 Rigby won gold medals at the World Cup in Miami and the Riga Cup in Latvia. Also in 1971 she was the South African Cup champion and in the U.S.–U.S.S.R. Dual Meet was a champion in the floor exercise. At home and abroad Rigby won a total of twelve medals, eight of them gold.
Following the win at the 1970 World Games and her 1971 successes, Rigby entered the 1972 Olympics as the U.S. favorite to win gold in Munich, Germany. She was a marquee gymnast, appearing on many television shows, including What's My Line, The Johnny Carson Show, and The Dick Cavett Show. Even foreign newspapers featured her on their front pages. The 1972 Olympic trials started well for Rigby in March at Terre Haute, Indiana, when she won over the Olympic veteran Linda Metheny. However, on the second day of the May finals at Long Beach, Rigby fell on the dismount during compulsory bar exercises, the first such misstep for her and one that cost her the lead. On the third day she regained the lead, but as she executed an Arabian, she pulled the ligaments in her right ankle and could not compete on the final day. Nevertheless, the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Committee decided to make Rigby an official member of the Olympic team.
In the 1972 Munich Games, Rigby was key to the U.S. team's fourth-place finish in the all-around competition. She finished tenth in the overall standings in the year when Olga Korbut was the star. But the U.S. star was still Rigby, who continued to capture her country's imagination. Rigby had decided, however, that at age nineteen the time had come for her to retire.
Rigby stated that when she left gymnastics, she never wanted to go back. Many of her accomplishments after 1972 took their impetus from her gymnastics discipline. In 1972 she married Tommy Mason, a former All-Pro running back for the Washington Redskins, and had two sons. However, bulimia remained a serious problem for Rigby until she finally sought medical help. In 1981 she and Mason divorced, and on 11 September 1982 she married Tom McCoy, with whom she had two daughters. Soon after her retirement she became a television commentator for ABC Sports, an association that continued for eighteen years and prompted ABC's Wide World of Sports to name her one of America's most influential women in sports.
During this period Rigby began studying acting and voice with the same diligence she had applied to the bars. She made her acting debut in 1981 in the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz; Variety called her "a genuine theatrical talent." Her initial success was followed by roles in productions of Meet Me in St. Louis (touring production, 1982), Peter Pan (1990–1991, and Broadway production, 1998–1999), Annie Get Your Gun (touring production, 1993–1994), South Pacific (1994), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (touring production, 2000), and Seussical (Broadway production, 2001). She earned a Tony Award nomination for her performances in the 1998–1999 production of Peter Pan. She also appeared in the Arts and Entertainment television network's production of Peter Pan in October 2000. In Las Vegas she headlined and received the George M. Cohan Award for best specialty act in 1981. She was featured in a number of dramatic television movies, including The Perfect Body (1977), The Great Wallendas (1978), and Challenge of a Lifetime (1985). Rigby and her husband became executive producers at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada, California.
In addition to acting and singing, Rigby became a successful motivational speaker. Her efforts in this area were targeted to collegiate, corporate, and women's groups. Her subjects included conscientious nutrition, the practice and benefits of "balanced wellness," and the art of becoming a champion in any area of life.
In the United States, Rigby moved gymnastics from a backseat sport to a headline event. Her ability on the bars, her fearlessness as a performer, and her firm grip on America's heart brought pride and delight to her country. After retirement she offered award-winning entertainment in theater and television, and she provided a public service through the frank revelations of her twelve-year eating disorder.
The best source for a detailed account of Rigby's importance to U.S. gymnastics and her athletic career is Irvin Stambler, Women in Sports (1975). Anne Janette Johnson, Great Women in Sports (1996), outlines Rigby's personal life and career. See also a cover story about Rigby in Life (5 May 1972), and Anita Verschoth, "Sugar and Spice—and Iron," Sports Illustrated (21 Aug. 1972), which provides information about Rigby's family life, training, and career prior to the 1972 Olympics.