Every few months, 22-year-old Mary Lou Retton seeks out body-builders, nutritionists and exercise experts. She signs on to do a gymnastics exhibition, though "getting into a leotard at 14 and getting into a leotard at 22 is quite different," said the former Olympic champion the other night over a very bland, low-fat dinner.

"Next time I see Kathy Johnson {a member of the 1984 team at age 24} I'll tell her how much I appreciate what she did and how she did it," said Retton. "Your body just can't take the abuse it did at 14."

If her nutritionist knew, he'd kill her, she said. She was sneaking a small glass of white wine.

Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Retton joins other former Olympic champions and current national sensations at Patriot Center for the Revco Gymnastics '90 Tour of Champions. She's been practicing hard to perform two events. She won't say which ones, but she swears she'll be good.

"Gymnastics is a unique sport. It's an artistic sport you do all alone. You've got one chance," said Lance Ringnald, 20, the youngest member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic men's gymnastics team in Seoul and the United States's top-rated male gymnast. He will perform at the show as well. "Mary Lou is in a very unique situation."

In 1984 Retton, then 16 and soon to be a high school sophomore, galvanized the sport of gymnastics in this country by winning the overall gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. An American proved she could win in a sport in which the idols were Soviet, East German and Romanian.

More important, when Retton bounced off the vaulting box, scored a 10, landed, perkily hyperextended her back, waved straight-armed and wrist-rotating, and flashed her toothy smile, she also vaulted into another dimension. Her life was forever different -- always predicated upon that single Olympic moment and always substantially different than if she had won the gold in a less-scrutinized sport or had performed as most had expected.

"My God, I was ignorant. Right after winning, I was on the phone to my parents, I said, 'Yeah, I'll be home to finish my sophomore year,' " she said. "I had no idea what my winning created for me."

For the sport of gymnastics, "Mary Lou changed everything," said Betty Okino, 15, who is the No. 2 gymnast in the United States and who has a move on the balance beam about to be named for her. "Most of the people used to be through when they got old; it was over with. Mary Lou showed other things can happen."

Retton was the first woman pictured on a Wheaties cereal box and only the sixth individual athlete to do so at the time. She made commercials for batteries and bowling and shampoo. She stood in front of IBM executives -- they in their blue, three-piece suits, white starched shirts and red power ties; she in a red-white-and-blue Olympic leotard -- and told them how they could be better computer salesmen and managers.

"I'm a good story," she said. "If Joe Smith asks me to do a motivational speech, I'm a nice twist. This company is used to another man in a suit and tie and they see me in a skirt or my Olympic warm-up suit and I'm a prime example of motivation: Who'd have thought a little girl from Fairmont, West Virginia, would win the gold? Not me."

Within a year after the Olympics, she stopped competing. It just wasn't the same. She had changed emotionally and physically from the youngster who left home and school behind for a demanding, unforgiving sport. And gymnastics is a sport that shuns change, particularly those that transform the bodies of little girls into young women.

"Gymnastics is a controlling force. It controls everything," she said. "When you're 16, 17, Mother Nature takes over. Those are natural changes but in gymnastics, they're unnatural.

"It became too difficult: the endorsements, money-making things. If you want to be a top athlete you've got to dedicate your whole time to it and I wasn't able to do that."

As a young woman capitalizing on an Olympic moment in a sport of teeny dynamos, Retton is becoming more adept at accepting the change others cannot. She confirms a bowling contract was dropped because "I grew up." Her body and mind were changing even when others, those who wanted her at their podiums and pushing their products, wanted a static, little-girl champion.

"The public expects a lot," she said. "They see you when you were younger, wearing that stars-and-stripes uniform and they come up to you and say, 'You don't look like your picture from '84.' That's the way they remember me.

"When I think back, I'm seeing it with a different perspective now. Back then, I was a 16-year-old talking to people about my life and people wanted to know. Now, it's six years later and it's been a long six years and it's been a maturing six years. I've grown up and my attitude's changed so much. . . .

"Being remembered as I was is a great remembrance," she said. "I wouldn't want them to remember me any other way. That was my peak, my best."