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Houston Sports Hall of Fame 2020: Mary Lou Retton, America's Sweetheart

Third in a series

It was a steamy summer afternoon when the chairman came knocking on her door.

He had a posse that filled the small porch and a half dozen or so steep steps leading up to the Memorial area townhouse. She opened the door just a crack and saw that sea of faces, a camera, a bouquet of balloons.

She closed the door then opened it again – this time a little wider.

When she did, the chairman – Houston Chronicle writer and selection committee chair John McClain -- welcomed Mary Lou Retton to the Houston Sports Hall of Fame.

It took a second to sink in, but when it did, the third member of the 2020 Houston Sports Hall of Fame class presented by PNC Bank,  flashed that signature smile, walked in a few circles and shook her head while welcoming everyone in amidst a string of “oh-my-gosh -can’t-believe-this, hands-flying-around-as-exclamation-point’’ hellos.

She stopped and grinned. “Well, I knew I hadn’t ordered a pizza.”

The room broke out in laughter.

McKenna Kelley, who was complicit in the ambush surprise, hugged her mom, then stepped away and took in the moment.

To her, it was mom soaking in the huge honor of not just being tapped for the Hall of Fame but being the first woman to be honored in her adopted hometown.

For so many others in the room, it was a flashback to 1984 when the pint-sized 16-year-old stuck not one, but two perfect vaults in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion to become the first American woman to win Olympic gold in the all-around competition.

You looked at her and remembered the determination as she ran down and hit the vault. You remembered the smile spreading across her face as she was in the air. The perfect stick on the landing and her arms flying up in the air.

Some 35-plus years later, you realize that while Simone Biles may have center stage in gymnastics today, Mary Lou still has our hearts.

That Sports Illustrated cover of the 4-foot-9 superstar with her arms raised and the heads – Only You, Mary Lou – remains one of the most iconic photos of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. And the chills you get watching the videos of her that night – the floor exercise, the perfect vaults? It reminds us of how much she still means to the sport.

Retton, who joins Carl Lewis and Rudy Tomjanovich in the 2020 inductees, changed the face of women’s gymnastics in America. She brought fire, passion and power to the sport and transformed it in Los Angeles.

“I don’t think I understood the enormity of what she did and the groundbreaking gymnastics that she did at the time,’’ McKenna told the Today Show earlier this year. “She’s just mom.’’

Growing up in West Virginia, Mary Lou was just the kid who taught herself how to flip across the yard. Boundless energy from a little bitty kid who had fun tumbling and twisting. Until the 1976 Olympics when, as an 8-year-old, she watched Romania’s Nadia Comaneci win gold.

“It clicked for me that summer,’’ Retton said. “That’s what I want to do. There’s a name for it. It’s called gymnastics. And I was hooked.

“I just wanted to be just like her.’’

She and her sister begged their parents to enroll them in gymnastics, which wasn’t easy.

“Back so many years ago, there were not so many opportunities for girls in sports,’’ she said. “My three brothers? They could do anything. But the girls, especially in a small little rural town in West Virginia? not much.’’

As luck would have it, her mother found a note in the newspaper about a gymnastics class at West Virginia University.

“It was one hour a week,’’ Retton said. “That’s how we started. I loved it and I couldn’t wait for that day of the week and that one hour.’’

The rest? History.

By the time she was 12, the sport was buzzing about “this Retton kid.” She’s strong. She’s talented. And maybe, just maybe….

Two years later, at an event in Reno, Nevada, her life changed. That was the week she met Nadia’s coach – Bela Karolyi, who had just defected from Romania with his wife Marta.

“He comes up to me, taps me on the shoulder,’’ Retton said. “And I turn around and look up at him and I’m in total awe. This is the king of gymnastics. This is the guy who made Nadia – my inspiration – Olympic champion. And he’s talking to me?

“I could not believe it. I get goosebumps every time I share the story.’’

She also gets into character, channeling Bela’s booming voice and thick accent. “And he said, in his exact words – ‘Mary Lou, you come to me and I make you Olympic champion.’’

She paused to chuckle. “I think I slapped my knee and probably started laughing,’’ she said, “I’m thinking ‘are you kidding me? ‘This is crazy. Not me. Not me. I’m not that caliber of gymnast.

“That’s what I felt about myself. Apparently, he saw something else.’’

An unbeatable combination.

Karolyi, alternately a gruff taskmaster and one a huge bear hug, asked her to move to Houston and train with him but made it clear that there were only six spots on the 1984 Olympic team and no was guaranteed a spot. But if anyone could become an automatic pick, he said, it would be Retton.

So, the family packed up the car with everything she had – she said it fit into two tiny gym bags – and her career took off.

“As a kid – and I was very naïve – I did not have very many social skills ‘cause we grew up in a gym,’’ she said. “I’m barefoot and in a leotard my whole life.

“It was exciting, and I wasn’t afraid. I work better under pressure and I like a little pressure placed on me. So that was never a negative. That was ‘I’ll show you. You don’t think I can do it? Ha! You push my buttons and I’ll show you.’

“Bela was the master of that. He knew how to get that last drop out of me, but, yeah, it was exciting.’’

The two years before the Olympics were a whirlwind. After the move, she didn’t lose a competition and she thrived in Karoyli’s gym.  “I was just hungry,’’ she said. “I was like a sponge for competition every day in the gym.’’

She went from one of America’s good pixie gymnasts to a powerful force heading into the Games. Even when she injured a knee and spending six weeks rehabbing leading in LA, she was destined for a showdown with Hungary’s Ecaterina Szabo. But was she coming back too soon?

Nobody was going to tell her what she could or couldn’t do. She was going for it.

And she rocked it.

In addition to her power and fiery confidence on the floor, she had the perfect music and routine and played to the crowd, nailing her double layout on the opening pass to set the tone.

The exclamation point? The vault. She needed to be perfect to beat Szabo.

“Bela’s screaming at me,’’ she told Today, channeling her coach once again. “Mary Lou, Mary Lou, Mary Lou come here. You need a 10. You need a 10. You can do this. You can control it.’’

She paused.

“I said, ‘this is it, this is it Mary Lou. This next three-second vault is going to determine if you win or not.’ So, I run down there, I hit the vault and I was smiling coming down because I knew I would be able to control the landing. And Pauley Pavilion erupted. Erupted! I mean in a roar.’’

Karolyi was chanting “10, 10, 10” and when the judges agreed, Retton ran off the podium and into his arms.

“He was shaking me, and he held me up and he said, ‘You are the Olympic champ,’ ‘’ she said. “Oh wow, I’m getting goosebumps once again talking about it. Gosh. And the words coming from his mouth, that was a special moment.’’

The most special of that night.

So, what did she do? She took her second vault, even though she didn’t have to. Stuck that one too.

“I did (the second one) to honor the Olympics, honor the USA,’’ she said. “I had two vaults. Take ‘em.’’

She walked away from that second one smiling, shaking her head and wiggling her shoulders. What a curtain call for the Olympic champion.

“She was a joy of watching,’’ Karoyli said, “because of her amazing strength, her amazing explosiveness.’’

What followed was another whirlwind of magazine covers and commercial offers. She became the first woman to grace the cover of a Wheaties box.

She became America’s Sweetheart.

“You know the media pick and choose their favorites of the Olympics and I guess I was the 1984 darling,’’ she said. “And they put that America’s Sweetheart there and it pretty much followed Mary Lou Retton around for a long time.’’

And changed her life again.

“You couldn’t have prepared me for what my life was like after winning those Olympics,’’ she said. “Impossible.

“I was traveling the world. I was doing appearances, commercials. I was the first woman they put on the Wheaties box. I mean, all these kind of pioneer, breaking ground things for women in sport. And today, as I sit here speaking to you, that’s one of things I’m most proud of. My medal, yes. And representing the United States, yes. But it’s what we have done for women in sports.

“I have four daughters who are athletes and we’re close to being parallel to the men and I’m very proud to have been on the front end of that.’’

Retton’s explosive power was another first – in U.S. And Biles? Retton is in awe.

“You don’t teach that talent,’’ Retton said. “She is a superfreak and that’s a good superfreak. It’s unreal the strength and explosiveness and she’s taken our sport to a completely different level. Completely.’’

Retton revels in her collection of firsts, including being the first woman in Houston’s Hall of Fame.

“I like being first ‘cause people remember firsts,’’ she said. “That’s special. I hope I opened that door for other women athletes.’’

As for being honored alongside Lewis and Tomjanovich at the Houston Sports Awards next Tuesday?

“Carl is one of the greatest athletes on the globe,’’ she said. “Are you kidding me? He’s unreal. You don’t teach what Carl has. He’s just got it. “Five Olympics and not only did he compete, but he won. Whoa. And Rudy? I couldn’t have picked two better men and great people to share this with.‘’

Since those golden LA moments, Retton has been in demand as a motivational/inspirational speaker focusing on leaving comfort zones, not being afraid to fail and never ever giving up. She even took a turn on Dancing with the Stars.

Recently divorced, she has raised four daughters - three gymnasts and a competitive cheerleader – and just added another role to the list – mother of the bride.  Her oldest -- 24-year-old Shayla, who graduated from Baylor – was married earlier this month.

McKenna recently graduated from LSU and her mom was cheering her on during her last competitive floor exercise, chanting “10, 10, 10’’ just like Bela did for her. She got a 9.95, but that was still perfect in her mom’s eyes.

Skyla is a freshman at Texas Tech and her youngest, Emma, is a senior gymnast at Memorial High School and will be on scholarship at Arkansas in the fall.

“I’m so blessed, she said, “I am so grateful for my life and everything in it.’’

Those years of two practices and eight hours a day in the gym have taken their toll on her body – aches, pains and surgeries --- but through it all she’s still smiling. She’s in great shape and, yes, people do ask the question.

“When people still ask me if do gymnastics, (I say) At 51? No people, I don’t do gymnastics anymore,’’ she chuckled. “Because I’m so small, they lose track of time maybe.’’

What’s in her future?

“Well, I hope lots of grandbabies,’’ she said. “With four daughters, once they’re married, I hope lots of babies. I hope to just keep doing what I’m doing. I think I can help people. I can share with people and hopefully I’ll still be doing this when I’m gray-haired.

“I’m so blessed. You just couldn’t have written my story.’’

From the little kid sleeping her leotard to Olympic gold to inspirational speaker and mother of the bride. And she’s still America’s Sweetheart.

How does she think she’ll be remembered?

“That’s heavy,’’ she said. “I don’t know. I guess people will decide that for me.’’

She paused to and smiled.

“My hope is they remember my name - Mary Lou Retton. Oh, yeah, she was an Olympic champion, but what a great mother. That’s what I’d really like.’’

Melanie Hauser

Melanie Hauser, a former sportswriter for the Houston Post, writes a weekly column sponsored by the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

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