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.
More: But when you got to school, you couldn’t make friends because of your celebrity status.
MLR: College was a very difficult period in my life. The girls were so mean and cruel. I was used to being on a team, and since I didn’t join a sorority, I really didn’t have a place. Since I wasn’t included, I felt like the outsider.
More: I read somewhere that you put on a lot of weight as a result of this experience.
MLR: Yeah. I was training my entire life, on a strict diet, retired at 18 and then learned at college how a guy will show up at your door at 3 a.m. with a pizza. It was like the greatest thing ever. Plus, I also ate a lot because I was very unhappy in my life.
More: Having triumphed over so many challenges, what do you say to when you talk to kids to give them that eye-of-the-tiger feeling?
MLR: You can achieve anything you set your heart to do. I had naysayers my whole life. You have to believe in yourself. Do not care about what other people say. Don’t let people put limits on you. If I listened to everyone who tried to put limits on me, I would not be where I am today.
More: Tell us about your involvement with the Special Olympics?
MLR: We have been partners since 1984, to be exact. I was drawn to this cause not only because of the athletic side but also because these kids and their families are so special. I am floored by their amazing talents and what these kids can do. Not only do I get to place the medals on them and give them other awards, too, but for everyone who logs onto www.facebook.com/thankyoumom, Procter & Gamble will donate $1 to support these athletes at the summer games in Athens.
More: You know a lot about overcoming obstacles and not being defeated. You were born with a hip disorder and had hip-replacement surgery when you were in your thirties?
MLR: That’s right. I was born with dysplasia hips. My hips were at an angle and not straight, which my surgeon thinks made me a better athlete. But because of all the wear and tear of competing, today I am sitting here now with two titanium hips.
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