Retton, Mary Lou

views updated May 17 2018

Mary Lou Retton


American gymnast

Mary Lou Retton burst onto the gymnastic front with all the vivaciousness she could muster, and in doing so, took the world by storm. She changed the way people thought of a gymnast, not having the typical physique for

the sport. Retton was very muscular, a change from the petit, smaller gymnasts fans were used to seeing catapulting off the balance beam and swinging around the uneven bars. She also changed the world simply by her exuberance. Retton's infectious smile captured the hearts of people everywhere during the 1984 Olympics. It is that smile that continues to inspire people to this day.

Inspired By Nadia

Mary Lou was born to Lois and Ronnie Retton. She was the youngest of five children. Growing up in the Retton household meant you were going to be very active. All five of the children would participate in various sports at any given time. Lois described her children as hyper and wanted to channel that energy into something positive. She would take Mary Lou and her sister Shari to West Virginia University for gymnastics once a week. "I would sleep in my leotard on Friday nights because I was so excited about gymnastics on Saturday mornings," Retton shared with Skip Hollands worth of Texas Monthly. Her first pining for Olympic Gold came at the age of four when watching Olga Korbut during the 1972 Olympics. Korbut was gutsy and full of vim and vigor. Retton could identify with Korbut's spirit. Retton was also intrigued with the way Korbut expressed emotion, during the time when the Cold War forced most Russian athletes to show no emotion. When Retton was seven she watched Nadia Comaneci compete in the Olympics and enchant the world with her skill and force. Retton knew she wanted to one day stand on the podium and receive a gold medal.

Retton eventually got to the point where she outgrew the training she was receiving in West Virginia. In 1982 she left home for Houston, Texas. Retton had met Bela Karolyi when competing in Las Vegas, Nevada, and he encouraged her to come train with him. Retton's parents were reluctant at first, believing she was too young to be away from her family. It took a lot of pushing for Retton to convince them that if she did not go to Houston, her career as a gymnast may never come to fruition. Her parents decided she was right, and wanted her to be all she could be.

Retton stayed with a family in Houston whose daughter was in the same program at Karolyi's school. At this point she was training eight to ten hours a day, which left little time for schoolwork. Retton ended up taking correspondence courses, which allowed her to complete her studies at a pace that adhered to her training schedule.

Karolyi the Bear

Karolyi had been known for his harsh training style when in Romania. When he defected to the United States with his wife they opened their gymnastic school in Houston. Since being in the States Karolyi had mellowed considerably. He had become "an enthusiastic cheerleader, constantly shouting words of encouragement during competitions, clapping his gymnasts on the back, and rewarding displays of excellence with big bear hugs. Mary Lou responded well to this type of treatment. It psyched her up," wrote George Sullivan in his biography of Retton's life, titled Mary Lou Retton. Karolyi was enamored with Retton's innate ability in gymnastics and could see the energy within her. In Sullivan's book he expressed, "Mary Lou is a little volcano on the floor."

After only one month of Karolyi's tutelage Retton won the all-around title at the Caesar's Palace Invitational. When her team was to attend the McDonald's American Cup Competition at Madison Square Garden, she had not ranked high enough yet to be invited. Retton went with the team as a substitute. Her big break would happen when one of her teammates suffered an injury, rendering her unable to compete. Karolyi put Retton in her teammate's position. "Not only did she win the competition, but she set a meet record of 9.95 points in the vault event," wrote Sullivan. It was this win that put her in contention for the 1984 Olympics, but the months prior to the Olympics would prove to be harrowing ones.

Olympic Visions

A mere six weeks before the Olympics Retton suffered a major knee injury that required surgery. Her parents consulted with the most skilled physician they could find, who flew in to do arthroscopic surgery. The surgery was minimally invasive, and allowed Retton to walk immediately and begin training again a week later, after doing physical therapy to ensure the knee was healing properly. By the time she was to go off to the Olympics she had fully recovered and was stronger than ever. "In the weeks before the Olympics, Mary Lou often lay in her bed with her eyes closed and let her imagination romp. She would visualize herself on each piece of equipment, performing her best routines and hitting every move perfectly," described Sullivan. Retton even went as far as to imagine receiving the gold medal, while hearing the "Star Spangle Banner" booming in the background. Her creative visualization would prove to be prophetic.


1968Born in Fairmont, West Virginia
1975Begins taking gymnastics at University of West Virginia
1980Enters Class I Nationals
1982Meets coach Bela Karolyi at a meet in Las Vegas, Nevada
1982Moves to Houston to train with Karolyi<.
1983Fractures wrist at U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Chicago, Illinois, forcing her to miss the World Gymnatics Championships that year
1984Competes in the Olympics in Los Angeles, California
1986Retires from full-time gymnastics
1986Writes a book with Karolyi about her road to the gold
1990Marries Shannon Kelley
2000Writes an inspirational book on how to achieve happiness
2000Begins production for the children's show created by her and her husband

Mary Lou Retton

It came down to the final event. For almost a week, 16-year-old Mary Lou Retton, America's best female gymnast, had sparred with Romania's Ecaterina Szabo for the gold medal in all-around gymnastics in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The winner would bear the title of finest woman gymnast in the world.

The competition had been nip and tuck. Then Szabo, a solid international star who rarely made a mistake, twirled around the uneven bars with her usual brilliance, earning a score of 9.90.

Now it was Mary Lou's turn on the vault, the last chance for the 4-foot 9-inch, 92-pound dynamo to take home the gold.

As Mary Lou waited her turn, her personal coach, Bela Karolyi, leaned across the barricade that separated him from the contestants and handed her a piece of paper. On it he had done some arithmetic: "Score a 9.95 and you will tie Szabo for the gold. Score a perfect 10 and you will be the all-around champion. Anything less than 9.95 means second place."

Source: Sullivan, George. Mary Lou Retton. New York:Julian Messner, 1985.

The U.S. Women's team performance at the Olympics got off to a rocky start, with several of the girls making critical mistakes during their routines. Fortunately Mary Lou Retton was on their team, who would not accept anything other than a perfect performance. With Retton's perfect 10s along with her teammate Julianne McNamara's perfect performances, they were able to bring the teams score up to medal winning status. These performances lead the team to a silver medal victory. A medal had not been won by the U.S. Women's Gymnastic team since 1948, when they had earned a bronze. The performance was somewhat tainted by the fact that the Soviet Union and their allies (except Romania) had boycotted the Games.

Retton's greatest competition in the all-around competition was Romanian Ecaterina Szabo. They each would compete in a rotation cycle, with Szabo always performing first, which allowed people to compare their scores. Szabo did extremely well on the balance beam, earning a prefect 10. Retton was a little behind due to her routine on the uneven bars, earning a paltry 9.85. This caused her and Szabo to be neck and neck, and tensions were high. With another costly stumble on the balance beam, Retton's chances at a gold were diminishing. She was a fraction of a point behind Szabo. Karolyi, who was in the photographer's area, was cheering Retton on the whole way and at this point Retton went over to tell her coach that she was going to "stick it." This meant she was going to do her last event, the vault, perfectly to win the gold. She waited in position until the green light on the scoreboard flashed. "Mary Lou raised her right arm to the crowd, then bounded down the runway, rocketed off the springboard to fly some 14 feet. In the air, she combined a back somersault with a double twist, her body stretched out flat like a knife blade. And then she stuck it, landing upright and rock still," writes Sullivan in his account of the moment. Although Retton waited anxiously for her score to be posted, she knew it would be a10. When it was announced she had received a 10 she ran to the runway and waved at the crowd excitedly. Retton wasn't done though, as Olympic rules state that she had to complete another vault. She did just that, and to prove that she was worth her weight in gold, she did another perfect 10 vault. Karolyi said after the event, "Very few have her power to keep going like a bulldozer to get what they want and go on to win."

Dreams Do Come True

What Retton had envisioned years ago at seven years old, while watching Nadia Comaneci, had come to fruition. She had won the gold she had longed for. In addition to the gold for the all-around competition, Retton also earned a silver medal on the vault, and bronze medals in the uneven bars and floor exercise. She came home from the 1984 Olympics having earned the most medals any athlete had received that year. Once her competition was done Retton decided to go home to Fairmont, as she had not been home for over ten months, and due to security issues, there was not much she could do at the Games. She planned to fly back to Los Angeles for the closing ceremonies. Upon her arrival back home, Retton got a homecoming she never had expected in her wildest dreams. The town had been notified when her plane was to touch down, and there was a crowd of people waiting for her at the airport, holding signs and cheering for her. Retton was whisked away from the airport in a convertible, which was taken to a parade arranged for her through the streets of Fairmont. "Quickly made banners and signs had gone up all over town. Several said: We love you, Mary Lou, and Fairmont's Golden Girl. Precious Gifts Come in Small Packages another declared," said Sullivan. It was quite a sight. Retton participated in many celebrations following the Olympics, including one in New York with a ticker tape parade. She said it was nothing compared to the celebration put on by her home town.

Retton did not realize what a celebrity she had become. Everyone knew who she was and had fallen in love with her contagious smile. Retton was requested for a plethora of television engagements, including the Tonight Show, where she chatted excitedly with Joan Rivers who was filling in for Johnny Carson at the time. "She won a nation's heart with spunk and a high-wattage smile," reports Steve Wieberg for USA Today. Retton could not go anywhere without being recognized. She tried to disguise herself by wearing sunglasses, but when you are a 4' 9" dynamo, it is hardly a disguise. Every girl in America wanted to be just like Retton to have her "winning combination of power and personality," as conveyed in Teen Magazine. In the same article Retton shared, "I thought I'd go to the Olympics, do my best, see what happened, then go back to normal life. But it didn't work out that way."

Awards and Accomplishments

1981Named to the US junior national team
1983Wins American Cup Championship
1983Becomes American Classics Champion
1983Wins Chunichi Cup Championship
1984Wins American Cup Championship
1984Wins the title of American Classics Champion for second time
1984Becomes U.S. Champion and Gold Medallist for All-Around
1984Brings home one Gold, two Silver, and two Bronze medals from Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California
1984Named Sports Illustrated's "Sportswoman of the Year."
1984Named "Amateur Athlete of the Year" by Associated Press
1984Becomes first woman to be spokesperson for Wheaties and be featured on the box
1985First person to win American Cup Championship three times
1985Inducted into the United States Olympic Champions Olympic Hall of Fame
1993Named as "Most Popular Athlete in America" by Associated Press' national survey
1997Inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame

Retton trained two more years with Karolyi, going on to win a third McDonald's American Cup Competition, which no one had done before. About her accomplishments she stated, "you have to have dedication. And you have to get the proper coaching." She continued by expressing her gratitude to Karolyi for his part in her success, saying "I couldn't have done it without him." Karolyi has nothing but good things to say about Retton as well saying "I have been teaching gymnastics 25 years, and had many world and Olympic champions, but

I have never coached anybody more positive and dedicated than this little girl." Retton returned the compliment to Karolyi, sharing "He gave me a confidence that I never would have had without him." She retired from full-time gymnastics in 1986, but has remained close to Karolyi.

Before Retton retired from full-time gymnastics she had already become involved in doing various endorsements for various products. The most notable was Wheaties, as she was the first woman to grace the infamous box. Retton continued to do her endorsements while attending the University of Texas. It was there she met her husband, Shannon Kelley. Kelley and Retton married in December of 1990. Kelley said "I know it sounds like a fairy tale, but when I first saw Mary Lou on television, I told my mom I had the strangest feeling that someday I would meet her and we would get married." It was only ten months later that the wheels went into motion to bring them together. Retton is now a mother to three children and continues to do motivational speaking across the country. "Retton's vivacity remains a breathtaking phenomenon," said Hollandsworth. Retton wrote an inspiring book in 2000 sharing her methods for happiness. "What I've been doing my whole life, from being in the Olympics to getting married and being a mother, is training for my own personal happiness. Now what I want to do is share my formula for happiness," she explained to Janice Lloyd of USA Today. In the book, she explains, "I tell people how to leave the comfort zone and meet life's challenges." Her and husband Shannon submitted a proposal for a program called Mary Lou's Flip Flop Shop which is now shown on FamilyNet, as well as several other networks. She explained, "My show will create a foundation for kids teach them the values of honesty and respect. We will educate and entertain through the use of physical movement. This will be an interactive program that will be both educational and fun."

Mary Lou Retton showed the world that it is possible to aspire to something and with dedication and a great attitude, go on to achieve your dreams. She has helped people to see one can truly be happy simply being the best person each individual is called to be. Retton wants everyone to be able to accomplish the happiness she has. She shared "I smile because I am truly, fundamentally happy" That big smile on the outside comes from a place deep within meand I want others to know how to find that place within themselves." Retton continues to inspire people, making public appearances, and doing her show for children. Sullivan sums up Retton's future best, stating "Mary Lou will survive. Her pretty face and winning smile, her charm, her cheerful, upbeat matter will be there for us to see for years to come."


Address: Mary Lou Retton, c/o Washington Speakers Bureau, 1663 Prince Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. Phone: (703) 684-0555.


(With Bela Karolyi and John Powers) Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion. McGrawHill Book Company, 1986.

(With David Bender) Gateways to Happiness: 7 Ways to a More Peaceful, More Prosperous, More Satisfying Life. New York: Broadway Books, 2000.



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Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports In America. Vol.1."Chapter 3, Outstanding Women Athletes Who Influenced American Sports: Mary Lou Retton." Oryx Press, 1992.

Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports In America. Vol.1."Chapter 3, Outstanding Women Athletes Who Influenced American Sports: Olga Korbut." Oryx Press, 1992.


Becker, Debbie. "Retton Still Flips Over Her '84 Heroics." USA Today, (July 23, 1996): 06E.

Calkins, Laurel Brubaker. "'10'Again." People, (July 15, 1996): 65-71.

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Lloyd, Janice. "Retton's 'Gateways' Provide Her Balance Olympic Gymnast Discusses Her Life Since 1984 Gold." USA Today, (April 6, 2000): 03F.

"Mary Lou Retton: Life After the Olympics." Teen Magazine, (May 1985): 94.

Montville, Leigh. "Return of the Pixies Olympic Champion gymnast Olga Korbut and Mary Lou Retton Showed They Still Have A Lot of their Old Magic During a Crowd-Pleasing, Eight-City Tour." Sports Illustrated, (November 27, 1989): 34.

Torpy, Bill and Beth Warren. "Salt Lake City 2002: Gymnastics Legend Slips from Glory to Humiliation." Atlanta Journal and Constitution, (February 10, 2002): A1.

"Up Front: Mary Lou Retton Revels in Texas in Houston the Former Olympian Goes the Whole Nine Yards of Tulle as She Vaults into the Big Event, Grinning as Usual." People. (January 14, 1991): 50.

Weiner, Jay. "Where are They Now? Chernobyl Disaster Changed Korbut's Life and Her Location." Minneapolis Star Tribune. (August 1, 1996): 02S.

Wieberg, Steve. "Retton Reflects on Her Decade of Fame." USA Today, (August 3, 1994): 02.


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Reed, Susan. "Update: Golden Girl Olympic Gymnast Mary Lou Retton Delivers Yet Another Perfect 10: Her First Child." Anne Maier in Houston (January 5, 2003).

Sketch by Barbra J Smerz

Retton, Mary Lou

views updated May 14 2018

Mary Lou Retton

In 1984, Mary Lou Retton (born 1968) became the first American woman to win an all–around gold medal in Olympic gymnastic competition. She also won two silver and bronze medals at the games, thus picking up more Olympic medals than any other athlete that year. Her wide smile, plucky attitude, and diminutive stature further thrust her into the spotlight and endeared her to millions. Retton went on to parlay that popularity and positive outlook into a new life after her retirement in 1986.

Early Lessons

Retton was born the last of five children to Ron and Lois Retton on January 24, 1968, in Fairmont, West Virginia. Her father, who was only 5′7″, played basketball at West Virginia University and minor league baseball before settling down to family life. His children all inherited his athletic talent, but the youngest was especially active. "I swear," Retton's mother recalled to Bob Ottum of Sports Illustrated, "that girl was so hyper you wouldn't believe it. I mean, energetic! First, she walked at an early age, and then she and her older sister, Shari, were running around here like little crazy people, doing tumbling and all, bouncing off the walls and breaking up the furniture. I finally sent them both off to dancing school. You know, tap and ballet and acrobatics. Well, it was the acrobatics that did it."

At seven, Retton was sent to a children's gymnastics class at West Virginia University. Tiny, but with a stockier build than was normally associated with gymnasts, she threw herself into the sport with abandon. "When I was a little girl," Retton told Skip Hollandsworth of Texas Monthly, "I would sleep in my leotard on Friday nights because I was so excited about gymnastics on Saturday morning." Her mother told Ottum that Retton was also undisturbed by her different physique, telling her, " 'Well, that's O.K., Mom. I may not be whippy, but I've got all that power.' " By the time she was 12, she had decided gymnastics was her game.

In later years, Retton attributed her much of her drive and determination to the early influence of her family and community. "Fairmont, my hometown, is a small coal–mining town, and I grew up with a very strong work ethic," she told "My family and most West Virginians are hard–working people. When I got to the elite level of gymnastics, that foundation of hard work, discipline(,) and commitment had already served me well, and I felt very fortunate to have it."

Trained Hard and Overcame Injury

Retton got her big break in 1982, when she was spotted by famed coach Bela Karolyi. Karolyi had defected to the United States from Romania, where he had trained such winning female gymnasts as Nadia Comaneci, who took three gold medals away from the 1976 Olympics. He recognized the makings of another winner in Retton, and offered his services without charge if she would move to Houston and train at his facility there. It was not an easy decision for the girl of only 14, or her parents, but Retton's competitive drive won the day. As she later explained to Curt Schleier of Investor's Business Daily, "I didn't want to spend the rest of my life thinking I could have gone to the Olympics, thinking 'what if?' " So, her schooling was put on hold and she was packed off to Texas to study with the master.

Karolyi's training style was controversial. Some saw him as too demanding, sometimes pushing the girls too far. But Retton saw the grueling regimen of eight hours per day and ongoing pressure to succeed as necessary. She told Hollandsworth that her coach's critics were wrong. "Those who (object to his methods) are the people who don't win," she said. "They're not the ones who make it. Listen, Bela was rough . . . But he never abused me. He was a great motivator. He gave me a confidence that I never would have had without him."

Retton bloomed under Karolyi's tutelage. Her inherent talent and courage were groomed under his relentless guidance, resulting in a 4′9″ powerhouse of strength and skill. And the hard work paid off. In March of 1983, Retton filled in for an injured teammate at the last minute at the American Cup in New York City and walked off with the all–around title (the first of three consecutive years she did so). That same year, she became both an American Classics champion and the first American woman to nab the all–around title at Japan's Chunichi Cup. In May of 1984, she won the U.S. all–around title, and she qualified for the Olympic team in June. But shortly afterward, potential disaster struck.

Retton hurt her knee just six weeks before the 1984 Olympics. The injury required surgery, and she was told she would need at least three months of recovery before competing again. However, the tiny whirlwind had no intention of putting her dreams on hold so readily. "Maybe I was being naïve," she recalled to Schleier, "but I'd sacrificed so much. I said to myself, 'I've made it this far. No one's going to tell me what I can and can't do. No one's going to put a limit on me.' " So Retton had the operation, but she was out of bed the next day. Within two days, she was delicately jogging, and when the American women's gymnastics team arrived in Los Angeles that summer, Retton was on board and ready to go.

Olympic Triumph

The Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympics in retaliation for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 games in Moscow, thus eliminating some competition in the 1984 games. At the time, no American woman had ever won an individual medal in gymnastics. Even without the clearer field, however, Retton had been seen as one America's great hopes. Nor did she let her country down.

Retton took the Olympics by storm. Despite her injury and accelerated recovery, the 16–year–old with the pixie haircut cut a wide swath through her competition and set records along the way. She won a gold medal in the all–around gymnastics event, becoming the first American woman to ever do so. She also earned a silver medal for her vault performance, bronze medals in both the floor exercise and uneven bar competitions, and a silver for the team event (the first medal for a U.S. gymnastics team since 1948). Her outstanding total of five medals made her the biggest individual winner of any athlete at that year's games. And the crowd went wild.

Retton's elfin size, effervescent personality, and irresistible grin, not to mention undeniable pluck, won the hearts of people all over the world. While everyone loves a winner, this one was especially appealing. Not incidental to her charm was her instant acknowledgment of Karolyi. Retton recalled her actions to Teen Magazine as, "After it was over(,) I ran up to him and we were saying, 'We did it! We did it!' Because it was true, I couldn't have done it without him." Retton became an overnight celebrity.

America's Sweetheart

Retton was soon dubbed "America's Sweetheart" by the media. She was clamored over, petted, and adored. Companies lined up to sign her on as a spokesperson, and she made several lucrative deals, including as the first woman to ever appear on a Wheaties cereal box. People gave her presents ranging from stuffed lambs to a red Corvette, and she had the opportunity to meet such popular entertainers as John Travolta and Michael Jackson. When one factored in travel obligations and ongoing training with Karolyi, the specter of overload seemed likely. But Retton remained remarkably grounded, if a trifle surprised by all the attention. "People recognize me—and that's really weird," she told Teen. " . . . I guess maybe my size gives me away. I don't know; I'm just a regular person."

1984 also saw Retton named "Sportswoman of the Year" by Time, and "Amateur Athlete of the Year" by the Associated Press. She continued to compete as well, becoming the American Cup Champion for the third time in 1985. That same year, she was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Retton, however, was beginning to change gears.

Hoping to instill some balance in her life, Retton retired from her sport in 1986. "I deserved to take a break and eat whatever I wanted to eat," she told Bonnie Siegler of American Fitness. "I wanted to be rebellious, so I retired from gymnastics. I was finally on my own." She decided to attend college at the University of Texas at Austin, partly to be near her boyfriend and partly to achieve some kind of normalcy, but even America's Sweetheart can be foiled. Retton encountered jealousy and gossip aplenty in college. She put on weight, sank in spirits, and eventually dropped out of school—a move she regretted for years. But her ebullient nature demanded she not stay down for long.

Always Positive

Fundamentally upbeat of personality, Retton began to carve out an adult life for herself. Her celebrity gave her an opening into the lecture circuit, and she quickly found her niche as a motivational speaker. She also dabbled in acting in such films as Scrooged and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, and worked as a television commentator. In 2000, her first book, Mary Lou Retton's Gateways to Happiness: Seven Ways to a More Peaceful, More Prosperous, More Satisfying Life was published. The inspirational tome was designed to help people achieve some of Retton's trademark optimism. "I smile because I am truly, fundamentally happy," she explained to Hollandsworth. "That big smile on the outside comes from a place deep within me—and I want others to know how to find that place within themselves."

A large source of Retton's happiness was her family. She and husband Shannon Kelley, a former University of Texas quarterback turned investment banker, had four little girls (Shayla, McKenna, Skyla, and Emma) by 2002. While retaining her customary sense of humor in telling Bob Dart of the Austin American–Statesman shortly after Emma's birth, "I am so done," Retton's family had replaced sports as her passion. "My ultimate goal in life is to be the best mother and wife I can be," she told "Fame really has no bearing on that at all. Winning gold at the Olympics brought much joy to my life—but having a family is the most important thing . . . I'd happily give up all five of my medals to preserve the joy and love that my family brings me every day. There's no comparison."

Although Retton's priorities had altered and matured, the world of sports continued to honor her long after her retirement. Among those accolades were the creation of the Mary Lou Retton Award for athletic excellence by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1994, the 1995 Flo Hyman Award from the Women's Sports Foundation, and her 1997 induction into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. At the turn of the century, over 15 years after her stunning Olympic victory, she was named one of the ten most popular athletes to appear on a box of Wheaties. Clearly, the diminutive bundle of energy who delighted the world at 16 still had a hold on its heart.


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Retton, Mary Lou

views updated Jun 08 2018

RETTON, Mary Lou

(b. 24 January 1968 in Fairmont, West Virginia), first U.S. female gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal in the all-around event, with a perfect score in the floor exercise and the final vault, at Los Angeles in 1984; her cumulative five medals were the most won by any Olympian that year.

Retton was the youngest of five children and the second daughter of Lois Retton, a homemaker, and Ronnie Retton, a security guard who later formed his own company repairing transportation cables for the coal-mining industry. Everyone in Retton's family was athletically inclined. Her father had been a sixth man for the West Virginia University basketball team, and later was signed to a minor league contract to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. Retton's three brothers were baseball players, and her sister was an All-America gymnast at West Virginia.

At age four Retton began taking dance classes with her sister at Monica's Dance Studio. The following year Lois found one-hour gymnastics classes for her daughters at West Virginia University, and later they began taking lessons at the Aerial-port, a small, newly opened gym in Fairmont. At age eight, Retton was inspired to achieve great heights in the sport of gymnastics while watching Nadia Comaneci amaze the world with her talent and three gold medals at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada. Retton took part in her first competition in 1976 at Parkersburg, a town on the Ohio border. Although she did not win, a short while later she was victorious in a tournament for beginners. In school she was a Pop Warner majorette and the Pee Wee football homecoming queen, as well as a top student. She was also a good sprinter, placing second in a Hershey's track and field competition at age eleven.

By age twelve Retton was serious about gymnastics, and her dedication and talent were evident. She had done so well at the beginners' level that she was permitted to skip the intermediates and move on to Class I competitions, including the nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She entered her first international meet in Canada, where she won the all-around event. After achieving some success, but seeing little improvement in her style, Retton decided she needed to train with the best coach she could find; this was the Romanian Béla Karolyi, who had helped Nadia Comaneci achieve her dreams years earlier.

Retton was still a student at Fairmont Catholic School when she went to compete in the junior nationals in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she and her father spoke with the renowned coach. This was a difficult time for her family, since Karolyi's acceptance of Retton as a student meant that her training would take her to Houston. She had to leave high school and continue her classes through correspondence courses. Approximately two weeks after her move to Houston, Retton's decision paid off. She achieved her first perfect "10" in the vault in the qualifying meet for the U.S. championships. Victory after victory followed; Retton won the McDonald's American Cup in New York in 1982 and the Caesars Palace Invitational in Las Vegas in 1983, during which she became the first woman to do a new routine called the Tsukahara (SOOK-uh-harra) with a double twist.

Not everything was easy, however. Retton was constantly in pain from all the broken bones and other injuries sustained during her extensive training. In 1983 she was unable to compete in the World Championships after missing the trials due to a broken wrist. She made up for it, however, by becoming the first American to win the Chunichi Cup in Japan. From autumn 1983 to the Olympic Games in 1984, Retton was victorious in an amazing fourteen consecutive all-around competitions. Six weeks before the Los Angeles Olympics, however, Retton's right knee began to feel uncomfortable. Doctors warned her that she would not be able to compete in the long-awaited games because she had torn the cartilage in her knee and would require surgery. Retton had other plans and completed her three-month rehabilitation work in three weeks.

Retton defied the usual image of the wisp-thin female gymnast, with a solid, muscular build that gave her exceptional power. In 1984 she achieved what no other U.S. woman had ever been able to, she won the Olympic gold medal in the all-around in women's gymnastics. She was also a member of the silver medalist team from the United States, captured an individual silver medal in the vault, and earned bronze medals in the uneven bars and the floor exercise. As a result of winning five medals, she became the athlete with the most medals at the 1984 Olympics.

Retton was selected as the Sports Illustrated Sports-woman of the Year, with a 1984 cover exclaiming, "Only You Mary Lou!" That same year the Associated Press named her their Amateur Athlete of the Year. In 1985 she was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and received the Flo Hyman Award from the Women's Sports Foundation. Retton became an official spokesperson for Wheaties cereal; the first woman featured on the front of a Wheaties box, she also appeared in several television commercials for the product.

After her Olympic successes, Retton retired as a competitive gymnast and worked as a sportscaster, which included providing commentary for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. She also worked as a motivational speaker, encouraging young people to reach for their goals, and saying, "You've got to give your dream everything you've got. When it gives you so much, you have to give back the pride, inspiration, and enthusiasm to others." Retton is also on the board of directors of the Children's Miracle Network and serves as its national chairperson.

Retton is married to Shannon Kelley, an investment broker, with whom she has three daughters. Her retirement from gymnastics competition has freed Retton to pursue other high-risk activities such as roller blading and skiing, which were off-limits during training. She has also appeared in movies, including Scrooged (1988) and Naked Gun 331/ 3 (1994), and as a guest on several television shows, such as Guiding Light, Knot's Landing, Dream On, and Baywatch.

Enthusiasm and exuberance combined with talent and dogged persistence have enabled Retton to become America's sweetheart. Nine years after achieving victory and earning the only U.S. individual gold medal in gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics, she was named the most popular athlete in America in a national survey conducted by the Associated Press. Since then, the image of the young woman with the radiant smile remains indelibly etched in the minds of Americans everywhere.

Retton has written an autobiography, with Bela Karolyi and John Powers, Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion (1986). She also has written Mary Lou Retton ' s Gateways to Happiness: Seven Ways to a More Peaceful, More Prosperous, More Satisfying Life (2000), which includes stories from her personal life and career. Biographical sketches appear in Bob Schaller, Mary Lou Retton, Dan O'Brien, Mary Joe Fernandez, and Bela Karolyi, The Olympic Dream and Spirit: Stories of Courage, Perseverance, and Dedication (1999), and at the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame website,

Adriana C. Tomasinom

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Mary Lou Retton

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