Mary Lou Retton Chats About Her Isolated College Years and Her Two Titanium Hips

The Olympic medal-winning gymnast shares what it was like growing up in competitive sports and her life today with the Special Olympics.

by Ilyssa Panitz • Celebrity Reporter
mary lou retton picture
Photograph: Mary Lou Retton

Mary Lou Retton is one of the greatest and most iconic gymnasts of all time.

In addition to taking home the gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals, Retton was named Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year and has the honor of being the first female face to grace the front of the Wheaties box back in 1984.

If getting so many honors sounds terrific, it was, but it also came with a price.

When More spoke to Retton—who today is 43, the mom of four girls and partners with Procter & Gamble and the Special Olympics—she opened up about the sadness behind that dynamite smile. An edited version of the interview follows.

More: Congratulations are in order. Your 14-year-old daughter, McKenna, recently took home top honors at a gymnastics competition.
Mary Lou Retton: Yes, she did. She is a level-9 gymnast and won the regional competition, which is the best in seven states. During the competition, which I did not know, she fractured her ankle, taped it up and then finished the meet.

More: This scenario sounds so familiar, because when you were 14, you had knee surgery six weeks before taking part in the 1984 Olympics.
MLR: Yes, that is true. I did not listen to the doctors, because I was determined to compete and not let an injury stop me from participating.

More: How does it make you feel to watch your daughters be where you were?
MLR: [Laughs.] It is payback time. Wow, I really appreciate what my parents did.

More: Do you miss the sport now that you are watching them from the sidelines?
MLR: No. I trained in gymnastics since I was seven years old. I did eight hours a day of training three years before going to the Olympics. I do not miss working out that much. I do, however, miss the competitive side of it, because I am a goal setter and I like to set goals and then go out there and achieve them.

More: Having shot to the top in your sport, would you say there are downsides to going so far?
MLR: Oh my God, yes—a lot. I had to leave my little town in West Virginia and move to Houston to train. I was very homesick. I left all my friends and my family, who I was very close to. I would call after 9 p.m., and when I did, I was crying and saying things like, “Did I make the right decision? Why is my coach so tough on me?” Plus, I had a lot of injuries, which was frustrating.

More: As a female high-profile athlete, did you find that people pressured you about your weight?
MLR: Inside the gymnastic world, yes. I was not the thin little pixie-girl type. I was the strong, muscular, wide build. So, yes, my coaches were tough on me. Actually, to this day, I won’t own a scale in my home because of how my coaches would weigh us all the time and tell us a number we needed to be. We also don’t use the words fat or skinny.

More: Do you push your daughters the way your coach pushed you?
MLR: No, I back off. Besides, they don’t have Olympic aspirations; they have college aspirations.

More: What woman was a great role model for you in helping shape your career?
MLR: My gymnastics role model was Nadia Comaneci. I wanted to be just like her. But overall it was my mother. She was amazing. She taught so many wonderful things and instilled values in me such as eating well and teaching me about the kind of mother I want to be.

More: You left gymnastics because you wanted to go to college.
MLR: I did.

First Published May 18, 2011

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