Retton spoke of the challenges, struggles and adversities she overcame to become a gold-medal-winning Olympian. Born in the small, coal-mining town of Fairmont, West Virginia, Retton fell in love with gymnastics in 1976 as she watched her idol, Nadia Comaneci of Romania, win three gold medals in the Montreal Olympics.
Calling herself a self-taught kid, Retton rose to the top of West Virginia gymnastics and competed in meets around the country. At a national competition in Reno, Nevada, in 1982, Comaneci’s coach, the legendary Bela Karolyi, took notice of the youngster. “He comes up to me and taps me on the shoulder,” said Retton, who was 14 at the time. “I’m awestruck. This is the coach of my gymnastics inspiration. I’m looking up at the man who coached her. He said, ‘You come to me, and I’ll make you an Olympic champion.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
As fate would have it, Retton’s parents were at the meet, having driven half-way across the country to watch her compete. Karolyi sat down with the family and offered to become Retton’s coach. “After the competition, I begged my parents to let me go,” Retton said. “I knew I couldn’t live my life wondering ‘what if.’”
Her parents agreed, and Retton packed all of her earthly belongings into two duffle bags and moved to Houston. “It was like going to see the Wizard of Oz,” she said.
Retton said the move didn’t come without doubts. Would she be mature enough to handle living with a host family she didn’t know, working with other gymnasts she didn’t know, keeping her grades up and, as the youngest of five children, being away from her large, tight-knit family? “But it was the chance of a lifetime,” she said.
The first few weeks were tough, Retton said. She had been the only elite gymnast in West Virginia; in Houston, she was the sixth best athlete in the Karolyi gym. The gymnasts practiced eight hours a day in addition to going to school. “I ate it, I slept it and I thought about it,” Retton said. “I had the dream of representing the United States on the Olympic team.”
Retton’s first big break came in 1983 after just a few months with Karolyi. She had been chosen as an alternate on the team competing for the American Cup. As a non-competing gymnast, Retton said she looked forward to the competition as a learning experience. But when the team’s top gymnast pulled a muscle in practice, Retton got a visit in her hotel room from her coach. “He sat in a chair across from me, knee to knee,” she said. “He said, ‘Mary Lou, this is your chance. This is your opportunity to compete. Don’t let me down.’”
In the biggest competition of her young life and in front of a packed house in Madison Square Garden, Retton rose to the occasion, beating a Russian world champion to win the American Cup.
“I seized the moment,” she said. “When the chance presents itself, you don’t walk, you run through it. You don’t know if that chance will come again.”
Needing to win one more major meet to solidify her standing in world gymnastics rankins, Retton traveled to Japan. Overcoming jetlag, unfamiliar food and subjective judges, she took the top prize. “It gave me unbelievable confidence,” she said, “a confidence that I can walk out onto the mat and know I can win.”
As the 1984 Summer Olympics approached, Retton’s knee was acting up. But because Karolyi wasn’t “patient or understanding” when it came to injuries, Retton kept quiet. But six weeks before the Olympic Games, in her last floor routine practice in an eight-hour day, Retton heard and felt a pop. She approached her coach in pain, with tears in her eyes. He told her to sleep with ice on her knee.
By the next morning, the knee had swollen to the size of a balloon, and Retton was taken to the emergency room. She was told she needed surgery. “This can’t be happening,” Retton remembered thinking. She had cartilage and ligament damage and was told by one doctor that she should “go home to West Virginia and wait for the next Olympics.”
Retton fiercely refused. “Nobody was going to put limits on me,” she said. “If I had given up then, I would have wondered for the rest of my life what could have been. So I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Sent to Richmond, Virginia, and the best knee surgeon in the country, Retton underwent the procedure. She then “became a maniac” on a mission to rehabilitate the knee in less than six weeks. Arriving in Los Angeles for the Olympics, Retton said she was completely ready. “No matter how crazy your dreams are, if you have passion and belief, you can achieve them,” she said.
In the final events of the women’s all-around competition, Szabo scored a 9.9 on the uneven bars. Retton’s last event was the vault, her strongest. “In the back of my mind, I wondered if my knee would hold up,” she said. “But I did not want to share the gold medal, which I would have with a 9.9. I knew I could do it. All I needed to do was what I had done a thousand times in the Karolyis’ gym.”
With two attempts in front of her, Retton scored a perfect 10 on her first vault to win the gold. She took her second attempt and scored another 10. “People ask me why I took the second vault, knowing I’d won,” Retton said. “Two reasons: I was there to represent my country, and I wanted to prove to Ecaterina Szabo that Mary Lou wasn’t lucky.”
Retton told the audience that anyone can achieve great things if they are committed to rising above limits, both real and imaginary. “What happened in 1984 wasn’t supposed to happen, but I have a gold medal at home that says it did,” she said. “Meet challenges head on, take risks, don’t let people put limits on you. I did those things, and because I did, I have Olympic champion under my name.”
Following her talk, Retton entertained questions from the students. Her daughter McKenna Kelley, a member of the LSU gymnastics team, joined her on stage. Also in attendance was LSU gymnastics coach D.D. Breaux.