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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.’’