Catching Up With Mary Lou Retton

Publish date:

Retton and her contagious smile appeared in that star-spangled leotard on the cover of SI, Newsweek and Wheaties' boxes in 1984 after becoming the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the all-around gymnastics competition. Her older kids, Shayla, 13, and McKenna, 11, understand what she accomplished. But to Skyla, 7, and Emma, 6. "I'm still just mommy," Retton said.

To Shannon Kelley, the former University of Texas quarterback Retton married in 1990, she's just Mary Lou. The two met after his freshman year at Texas and continued dating when she began taking classes at Texas the next fall. People often ask Kelley if he felt intimidated because Mary Lou was a celebrity and an Olympic icon. "If she [had acted] that way, it would have only lasted one date," Kelley said.

Retton and Kelley encourage their children to participate in two activities per semester, as long as they keep their grades up. Three have chosen gymnastics as an activity, but Skyla prefers horseback riding ("Gymnastics is just not my thing," she told her mom).

Retton and her family live in Houston, Kelley's hometown and the former Olympian's adopted home since she moved there in 1982 to train for the Olympics. Though Retton and Kelley are raising a family of Longhorn fans ("We're starting the brainwashing early," said Retton.), Mary Lou still hasn't forgotten her West Virginia roots. "I'm a Mountaineer Texan," she said

Family is the focus of her life these days. She tries to make her motivational speaking engagements 24-hour trips, her goal being to make it to the 2:30 p.m. carpool line the next day. Family time also includes watching gymnastics, especially when the Olympics roll around. The girls took turns wearing Retton's gold medal while watching the 2004 Olympics, and Retton phoned Carly Patterson, who followed in Retton's footsteps by taking a gold medal in the all-around, after the winning performance to congratulate her.

There's no denying the impact Retton's perfect floor routine and gold medal-clinching perfect vault has had on American gymnastics. "It ignited a tremendous response from the young generations in the U.S. dreaming to be the next Mary Lou," said Retton's former coach, Bela Karolyi, now 65 and the director of the U.S. women's National Team Training Center in New Waverly, Texas. "It was like a brush fire."

Much has changed about competitive gymnastics since Retton won her gold medal in Los Angeles. Today's floors are much springier and more forgiving, the equipment is better, and the routines are more complex. "There's such a level of difficulty that it's almost scary," says Retton. "They tumble on that balance beam like they're on the floor."

The hard floors on which Retton tumbled and the constant pounding her lower body endured were partly to blame for the pain she began feeling in her hip in 2000. Retton also has hip dysplasia, meaning her hip sockets did not form properly. Kelley remembers mornings when his wife's lower body would stiffen and she wouldn't be able to walk. In June 2005, Retton underwent left hip replacement surgery. After the pain from the procedure subsided, the ache was gone. "I've got a metal hip now," Retton says with her trademark laugh, "but hey, I stuck that vault."

In October of that year, Retton attended the LSU-Florida football game at the invitation of LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux, who wanted to recognize Retton for setting a positive example for young gymnasts in Louisiana. Just before halftime of the football game, with the crowd of more than 92,000 chanting her name, Retton received an honorary LSU letter jacket, the only one ever presented. "She looked at me and said, 'I can't believe this,'" recalls Breaux. "Here she is, the absolute darling of gymnastics, and she's telling me she can't believe it."