November 30, 1981 12:00 PM

Second careers usually come in middle age; Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby has managed hers at 28. On this week’s Nashville Palace, NBC’s homage to country music, Cathy will surprise America with her singing and dancing. Nine years ago the 4’11”, 90-pound athlete retired from competition and the intense pressure that went with it. Now she is back in the limelight and enjoying it a lot more.

Rigby’s transition from sports to showbiz was gradual. Four months after finishing a creditable 10th in the 1972 Munich Olympics, Cathy married Tommy Mason, now 42, a pro football running back who had retired that year after a season with the Washington Redskins. Even though Cathy started a family—the Masons have two sons, Bucky, 6, and Ryan, 20 months—she broadcast gymnastics events for ABC and did commercials for Stayfree Maxi-Pads. The idea of a song-and-dance act occurred to her when she was offered the title role in a 1974 road-show production of Peter Pan.

Cathy was perfect for the part physically, but she did not sing: Someone else’s voice was dubbed in over the mikes while she lip-synched. Soon afterward Cathy began taking singing lessons. “At first I sounded like a cat being strangled,” she remembers. But her voice strengthened and so did her determination—in spite of a remark by a record executive that she “wasn’t hungry enough” to make it in a new field.

Rigby debuted as a singer in 1979 on the Donny and Marie show. But it was prerecorded and, as Cathy says, “The true test of an entertainer is performing live.” She met that test last summer when she played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Jennifer (opposite Gordon MacRae) in Paint Your Wagon at Sacramento’s Music Circus. “I was so scared,” she recalls, “that if anyone had spoken to me on the day we opened I would have cried.” But when the curtain went up she was composed, and the audience of 3,500 cheered as she belted out Over the Rainbow. “I had been accepted,” Cathy notes happily.

Nonetheless, she hopes she’ll never become a slave to approval again, as she was in her athletic years. “I spent eight hours a day in the gym because I was afraid of not being the best,” she says. “I didn’t want to disappoint anybody. That’s not the way I want this career to go. I don’t want to be as dedicated to any one thing as I was to gymnastics. There was nothing else for me. I don’t think I have to live like that now.”

The daughter of an Orange County, Calif. aerospace engineer and a former clerk at a McDonnell Douglas plant (they are now divorced), Cathy was sickly as a baby. But her health improved, and at 10 she took up gymnastics. She met Mason, then with the Los Angeles Rams, shortly after the Mexico City Olympics, when she was 16. They married four years later, and Mason earned a law degree but soon found his interest in the profession waning. He now manages his wife’s career and runs a Coors beer distributorship in San Bernardino, Calif., near their Lake Arrowhead home.

Cathy practices her singing one or two hours a day—and her new low-key style of life all the time. “The one thing I hope my kids don’t pick up is that win/lose thing,” she says. “I once thought that you have to be the best, or you’re not any good. That’s not true. But you do have to get better and better and better.”

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