Mary Lou Retton is perhaps one of the most famous and adored gymnastic stars in the United States today. Nicknamed “America's Sweetheart”, this four foot nine firecracker achieved Olympic gold and a permanent place in America's heart with her astounding skill and winning personality. Mary Lou came from humble beginnings, however, as the daughter of Italian Americans, Lois and Ron Retton, living in West Virginia. Mary Lou was born on January 24, 1968. Like many gymnasts, she started out in dance class at the age of four. Her mother later enrolled her at West Virginia University in gymnastic classes with her older sister.
It was Mary Lou who had the talent to move to the next level as a gymnast, however. Retton started her serious training in her home town of Fairmont with a local coach named Gary Rofoloski. By the time she was 12 years old, Retton was competing internationally and was completely dedicated to her sport. Her gymnastic muse and inspiration was Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who had won many Olympic gold medals in the 1970s and 1980s. Mary Lou had watched Comaneci's performances on the television and dreamed of being a world-class gymnast just like her. She was able to be closer to her muse when she began to train under Nadia's former coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi in Houston, Texas, at the age of 14.
After hiring the Romanian coaches she really began to blossom into a promising young athlete, and her first major competitive achievement was winning the 1983 American Cup. She went on to the Nationals and took second place to one of the Karolyis' other protégées, Diane Durham. A wrist injury prevented Retton from competing at the World Championships that year, but she was not deterred. Retton soon recovered and went on to win the 1983 American Classic and the Chunichi Cup hosted by Japan. She also won the American Classic the next year.
Retton went on to win the Nationals for 1984 as well as the Olympic Trials. Unfortunately, she incurred a sudden knee injury while training and was forced to undergo surgery. Mary Lou recovered swiftly and was able to compete at the Summer Olympics that year hosted in Los Angeles. That year, the Olympics were boycotted by the Soviet nations, except for Romania. The Romanian Olympic competitor, Ecaterina Szabo, gave her a run for her money with fierce competition. Szabo was just ahead of Retton in points until Mary Lou nailed a perfect score on her floor routine as well as her vault, securing the All-Around gold medal. Retton took home two more silvers and two bronze medals at the '84 Summer Games, as well. She earned the silver medals with her team and her individual horse vault, and her two bronze medals were for the uneven bars and individual floor exercise.
Retton's performance at the 1984 Olympics made her a household name in America, allowing her to become the first female athlete to grace the front of a Wheaties cereal box. Sports Illustrated also named her the “Sportswoman of the Year”. Her last official competition was at the 1985 American Cup, which she won. That same year she was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame. While she did not compete internationally any more after that spectacular showing at the Olympics, she did attend the 1988 Games as a commentator.
Mary Lou was still busy even after she retired from competitive gymnastics. Her popularity remained strong with people in the United States, so her endorsements were sought even after retirement. She appeared in some of Ronald Reagan's campaign television ads as a supporter of the Republican candidate. She was a TV host on Saturday mornings for a show called “Fun Fit”, which aired between cartoons and was geared towards children to encourage them to be more physically active. She also had a television show several years later in 2002. Produced by PBS, “Mary Lou's Flip Flop Shop” was also a show for children that encouraged fitness and self esteem. For a period in the 1990's she was a spokesperson for Revco, a national chain of drug stores.
It must have been her positive attitude and personality that people admired most, because in 1993 she was voted as America's favorite athlete along with Dorothy Hamill, another famous Olympian gymnast.
Four years later the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame gave her a formal induction. She also made appearances in other movies and television shows throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
"America's Sweetheart" settled down in Houston with a man named Shannon Kelley, whom she married in 1990. Being from a large family with four siblings, she became a devoted mother herself. Mary Lou and Shannon have four daughters together named Shayla, McKenna, Skyla, and Emma. They all moved back to West Virginia in 2009. She is still much loved by her fellow West Virginians, especially those in her home town, Fairmont. There is a park and a road named after Retton in the town to honor their spunky sports star.
She currently is a spokesperson for drug companies Biomet and Pfizer. She has several medical conditions including arthritis, overactive bladder, and hip dysplasia, which is a congenital ailment. Her years as a gymnast made this condition worse, and at the young age of 30 she had to have hip replacement surgery. As a Biomet spokesperson, she went to Warsaw in 2008 where her artificial hip was manufactured. There she met the people who created her new hip. This is further testament to Mary Lou's warm personality.
Mary Lou Retton has been one of America's most beloved gymnastic stars for well over two decades. While her competitive career was fairly short, it was, by far, one of the most memorable. When one thinks of artistic gymnastics her name undoubtedly comes to mind first. With five Olympic medals, several international titles, and entries in many important Halls of Fame, she remains the pint-sized American sweetheart with whom everyone fell in love in the 1980s.