May 06, 1991 12:00 PM

AS LEGEND HAS IT, THE LATE, GREAT Mary Martin, after a particularly grueling Broadway performance of Peter Pan, collapsed on her dressing-room sofa and groaned, “You have to be an acrobat to play this part.” Enter flying Cathy Rigby, the onetime Olympic gymnast now following in the elfin footsteps of Martin and Sandy Duncan as the stage’s favorite airborne trouper.

Rigby, 38 and a mother of four, has won rave reviews for her performance since she took to the air in the touring show in 1989. (“For sure,” declared the Boston Globe’s demanding Kevin Kelly, “[Peter Pan author] J.M. Barrie’s fairy dust has not been wasted.”) Rigby, who has performed in 47 cities so far, revels in her aerial role. “Flying is such a joy,” says the former balance-beam ace. “You just want to hoot.”

Between flights, there are other activities to get her hollering: The cast has held backstage Easter-egg hunts and water-gun fights and in March staged a ’50s-style prom night for Rigby at a Buffalo hotel. “In high school I never went to the prom because I was too consumed with gymnastics,” she explains. “Also, with my hair in pigtails and looking about 10, I wasn’t exactly date material.”

It may well be that Rigby so enjoys playing the boy who won’t ever grow up because, like so many child athletes, she was never allowed to do so. In fact, Rigby’s life reads like a checklist of road-to-stardom perils: There was the overbearing coach, the alcoholic father, the unfulfilled athletic expectations, bulimia and divorce. Born in Los Alamitos, Calif., Rigby was a sickly child, fiercely protected by her father, an engineer for McDonnell Douglas, and her mother, a materials analyst.

Preternaturally shy, Rigby nonetheless leaped into gymnastics after her first back flip on a trampoline. A coach in nearby Long Beach, Bud Marquette, took her under his wing, and her father built her a balance beam and a set of uneven bars in the backyard. Dad and coach soon collided. “It became a power struggle,” Rigby remembers, “and I was torn between the two.”

Her father, Paul, lost his job when Cathy was 15. Though he later quit drinking, Rigby says life “was hell for a long time. Gymnastics was a way to be away from home, but it too had its problems.”

The major one was the media-hyped expectation that she would win a gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Instead, Rigby finished 10th overall, and her star was lost in the trail blazed across the sky by Olga Korbut. “I began to think, ‘Did I fail everyone?’ ” Rigby recalls. “And when you’re scared to death like that, you put a veil across everything. Pretty soon you just become an image of what you think you should be.”

One of the things Rigby thought she should be was very, very thin. At 16, her weight jumped from 95 lbs. to 105 lbs., which made her feel, she says, that “my identity was threatened.” Bulimia was the next step. A fellow gymnast showed her the routine, and Rigby followed it faithfully. Her weight dropped to 79 lbs., and twice she was hospitalized and nearly died from electrolyte imbalance.

Superficially, Rigby’s life seemed perfectly normal. In 1973 she married Tommy Mason, a running back for the Los Angeles Rams. She eventually became a commentator for ABC Sports and gave birth to two sons, Buck, now 15, and Ryan, 10. (Her husband knew about her bulimia, Rigby says, but chose 10 ignore it. The illness so disturbed her body that she had to take fertility pills to get pregnant.) She even landed a stage role, playing, yes, Peter Pan in a seven-month national tour. The songs were prerecorded, though; Rigby just acted and flew. A fellow actor suggested she take singing and acting lessons, which she did. “At first,” she says, “I could sing on key, but I had a very light, puffy voice. Having started from scratch in gymnastics, I knew I could get better if I just worked at it. It’s that athlete’s obsessiveness—the need to prove yourself and work harder than anybody else. I think it’s what helped me do well in the theater.”

But as she raised her boys and pursued her career, the bulimia and a failing marriage conspired to wear her down. In 1981 she met Tom McCoy, an actor who was appearing with her in The Wizard of Oz in Sacramento and who helped her through her divorce. “We had everything in common,” Rigby says, “a sense of family—he was wonderful with the boys—not to mention that he was the most handsome guy out there.”

They married a year later, and McCoy convinced his bride to fight her bulimia. She began seeing a psychiatrist and soon was giving speeches to people with similar disorders. With Tom as watchdog, she has maintained healthy eating habits for seven years. Now, she says, “I’m most comfortable at 105 lbs. If at one time you would have told me I weighed that, I would have felt desperate.” She and Tom have two children of their own these days, daughters Theresa, 8, and Kaitlin, 5, and have a Spanish-style home in Fullerton, Calif., near Anaheim. McCoy, 34, began producing soon after he and Rigby married. Two years ago they decided to mount their own production of Peter Pan; since then, wherever Peter flies is home. When this production closes in August, Rigby would like to tackle Joan of Arc. “I find many similarities between Saint Joan and Peter Pan,” she says, “especially in the intensity of their convictions.”

Rigby manages to maintain a reasonably stable home and road life. Her boys, who live most of the year with their father in Anaheim Hills, join her regularly on the tour, and the girls happily travel with her from town to town. Rigby realizes this presents new pitfalls for Mom to negotiate: Little Kaitlin was confused when she first saw her perform. Says Rigby: “She went through all kinds of stages, like saying, ‘Mommy, when I grow up I want to be a boy just like you,’ to learning every single line in the play.” Rigby sees to it that the girls are tutored daily at the theater. In addition, Theresa, a budding songbird, tunes up with her mother for 45 minutes each day.

Still, perplexities remain. “It’s really hard to separate fantasy from reality,” Rigby says. “After they see me sing, ‘I’ll never grow up/I don’t wanna go to school,’ how are you going to say, two minutes later, ‘Okay, kids, it’s time to brush your teeth and do your homework’?”

MARK GOODMAN

TOBY KAHN in New York City

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