Retton, Mary Lou (1968—)

views updated

Retton, Mary Lou (1968—)

American gymnast who, with Korbut and Comaneci, helped change the approach of the sport from ballet to athleticism. Born on January 24, 1968, in Fairmont, West Virginia; daughter of Lois Jean Retton and Ronnie Retton; attended the University of Texas; married Shannon Kelley (a financial analyst), on December 29, 1990; children: three daughters, Shayla Rae Kelley (b. April 12, 1995); McKenna Lane Kelley (b. 1997); Skyla Brae Kelley (b. August 9, 2000).

First woman in the world to complete a variation of the Tsukahara vault; first American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in gymnastics, at Los Angeles (1984); first official female spokesperson for Wheaties.

Born in Fairmont, West Virginia, in 1968, Mary Lou Retton began her gymnastics career on the dance floor, taking ballet, tap, jazz, and acrobatics at age four. When she was seven and enrolled in a gymnastics class at West Virginia University, her mother and coaches soon recognized Retton was destined for great things. She began training at Pete Longdon's Aerial-Port Gymnastics with coach Gary Rafaloski and particularly liked working on gymnastics apparatus, noting, "I just got up and it felt natural." At eight, Retton won the beginner's title at a statewide meet. Four years later, she entered the 1980 Class II nationals, competing against older, more experienced gymnasts and winning the vault event. In 1981, she was made a member of the U.S. junior national team. For the next two years, Retton traveled around the world, winning events in China, Japan, Canada, and South Africa.

Retton was competing in Las Vegas in 1982 when she met the world-famous gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi. She began taking her high school classes by correspondence while training at his U.S. Gymnastics Center in Houston. Karolyi added power to Retton's performance and increased the difficulty of her vaults. After two weeks with her new coach, Retton scored her first perfect ten on the vault. Just a few months later, at the McDonald's American Cup, she won the all-around title, the vault, and the floor exercise, and tied for first place on the uneven parallel bars. In 1983, she became the first woman in the world to complete a variation of the Tsukahara vault—a layout 1½-back somersault with a double twist. Although a stress fracture in her left wrist forced Retton to skip the 1983 World championships, by December of that year she had won the Chunichi Cup in Japan. She successfully defended her American Cup shortly thereafter.

Gymnastics training is always strenuous, but Retton's schedule became even more so as she prepared for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Spending eight to ten hours a day training, she was chosen as one of eight members on the American women's team. Not long before the games, she tore cartilage in her right knee and had to have arthroscopic surgery; only two days later, she was back on the bars. Retton won five Olympic medals, the most won by any athlete at the 1984 Games; she captured the Olympic gold for the all-around title over her chief competitor, Rumania's Ecaterina Szabo , as well as a silver in the vault, and bronze medals in floor exercise, uneven bars, and the team competition.

With the advent of Olga Korbut , Americans had begun a love affair with female gymnasts,

but now they had a star of their own. Retton's photo was everywhere, and her lighthearted personality endeared her to fans. She was named 1984 Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, Sportswoman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, and became the youngest athlete inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. She also broke the Wheaties endorsement barrier, becoming the first woman athlete ever featured on its cereal box and the first official woman spokesperson for the product.

In 1985, Retton successfully defended her American Cup all-around title. To date, she is the only person to win this title three times. After studying communications at the University of Texas, Retton began serving as a television commentator. An actress as well, she has appeared in several major motion pictures and numerous television shows. She has also been successful as a motivational speaker and newspaper columnist.

In 1994, the U.S. Olympic Committee established the annual Mary Lou Retton Award for athletic excellence, and in February 1995, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton presented Retton with the Flo Hyman Award in recognition of her spirit, dignity, and commitment to excellence. Mary Lou Retton brought a new dynamic to American gymnastics. Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci had changed gymnastics from a graceful ballet exercise to a sport requiring strength, power, and daring, and Retton built on those changes. Thousands of young American girls signed up for gymnastics after her appearance at the 1984 Olympics.


Retton, Mary Lou, and Bela Karolyi. Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1986.

Silverstein, Herman. Mary Lou Retton and the New Gymnasts. NY: Franklin Watts, 1985.

Washington, Rosemary G. Mary Lou Retton, Power Gymnast. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner, 1985.

Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1992.

Karin L. Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia