After 1984 fame, Mary Lou Retton made Houston home
Simone Biles has won more world championships, Nastia Liukin has as many Olympic medals and Shannon Miller has more world and Olympic medals combined.
And yet, more than 30 years later, the Sports Illustrated headline of Aug. 13, 1984, rings true:
“Only You, Mary Lou.”
Mary Lou Retton laughs appreciatively at the notion that, at age 48 and the mother of four daughters, she is regarded as the greatest of all American female gymnasts, even surpassing those who jump higher, run faster and perform skills in the 21st century she never dreamed of accomplishing in the 20th.
“All I can say is that to be the first is very special,” said Retton, who in 1984 became the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic all-around gold medal in women’s gymnastics, a feat since accomplished by Carly Patterson (2004), Liukin (2008), Gabrielle Douglas (2012) and, if the form chart holds, Simone Biles of Spring at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Retton burst onto the international gymnastics scene at a time the balletic grace of the dominant Soviet Union team was the standard, packing the power and leg drive of a mini-Earl Campbell in a 4-foot-9, 95-pound package.
Generations of gymnasts later, her body type and style are the sport’s gold standard, embodied by the Biles, 4 feet 8, the three-time defending world all-around champion and prohibitive favorite to win the Olympic all-around.
“Back in my day, I was kind of on the cutting edge,” Retton said. “No one had ever seen a gymnast like me. Fast-forward today, and that’s all you see because that is how the sport has evolved to benefit powerful, athletic gymnasts.
“You go back to Nastia in 2008. She was one of the most beautiful gymnasts I’ve ever seen. But that kind of gymnastics has gone. Back when I competed, it was the pretty little butterflies, which I was not. I showed the world what the sport was going to be - power and athleticism as opposed to just the graceful, artistic side of things.”
Born and raised in Fairmont, W.Va., (her father, Ron, at 5 feet 7, was a co-captain with Jerry West on West Virginia’s 1959 NCAA Tournament finalists), Retton came to Houston at age 14 to train with Bela and Martha Karolyi, who trained the great Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci before coming to the United States in the early 1980s.
Retton won two international events in 1983 and entered the Olympic year, with the Soviets boycotting the Games in Los Angeles, picked to win the all-around silver medal behind Ecaterina Szabo of Romania. Retton sailed through the Olympic Trials but, in an event that would not have happened these days, was allowed to appear in a post-trials exhibition and suffered a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery six weeks before the Games.
Retton recovered and, trailing Szabo entering her final event in the all-around at Los Angeles, received a perfect score of 10.0 on the “vault without fault” to win the gold medal by 0.05 points.
She emerged from the Olympics as the most photogenic, marketable athlete on the U.S. team, becoming the first female athlete to be depicted on a Wheaties box and launching a life of celebrity that receded but has never gone away.
“My goal was to come to Houston because the Karolyis were going to give me my best shot at making the Olympic team,” Retton said. “If it didn’t work out, I would go back to Fairmont, W.Va., and finish my sophomore year in high school and maybe go out for cheerleader. That was my thinking.”
Instead, she stayed in Houston, graduating from high school and attending the University of Texas, where she met her husband, Shannon Kelley, a former Memorial High School quarterback who also played for the Longhorns and is an assistant coach at Houston Baptist University.
They have been married for 25 years and have four daughters - Shayla, a member of Baylor University’s national champion acrobatics and tumbling team; McKenna, a gymnast at LSU; Skyla, who attends Second Baptist School; and Emma, a potential elite gymnast who trains at Stars Gymnastics in west Houston.
“Those kids keep me hopping,” she said. “I travel from January to May watching them compete, and that is the joy of my life.
“I will pick and choose some appearances, but I need to take care of these kids and support them and love them. That’s where I am at this stage of life.”
She did not arrive at this point in her life unscathed. Born with hip dysplasia and battered by years of constant training as a teenager, she has undergone 19 surgical procedures, including replacements for both hips and underwent back surgery in June prompted by a degenerative bone disorder.
“All my problems came after I had my babies. That sucked all the calcium out of me,” she said, laughing. “With this back surgery, you get to the point when the pain overrides the fear of getting it done. It was a doozy, but I’m recovering.”
Gymnastics, she said, “is a brutal sport. But 30 years ago, the equipment we worked on wasn’t so forgiving. The floors today are like little trampolines. And we trained hard - 70 vaults a day onto hard surfaces. But the equipment today is better, and they train smarter today.”
But after all is said and done, she is just a kid from a small West Virginia town who has become one of the most familiar faces and most beloved citizens in the fourth-largest city in America.
“People still come up to me and say they remember where they were during the summer of 1984,” she said. “It’s not like today, when you get the results before they appear on television. You had to watch ABC, because that was the only place to see us. That made it special for people.”
Houston, she said, “has become home to me. All four of my children were born here, and my husband is from here. It really is home. It’s a small town in a big city and such a sports town where everybody supports each other.”