Biography of Mary Lou Retton, Olympic Gymnastics Champion

Mary Lou Retton on balance beam
Bettmann / Getty Images

Mary Lou Retton (born January 24, 1968) won a gold medal for the United States in women's Olympic gymnastics in 1984. She was the first American woman to win gold in the all-around event, and she won the most Olympic medals of any athlete at the 1984 Games. She also was known for her warm style, enthusiastic personality, iconic pixie haircut, and a more muscular build than many other female gymnasts.

Fast Facts: Mary Lou Retton

  • Known For: Gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic Gymnast
  • Born: January 24, 1968 in Fairmont, West Virginia
  • Parents: Ronnie Retton and Lois Retton
  • Published Work: Mary Lou Retton's Gateways to Happiness: 7 Ways to a More Peaceful, More Prosperous, More Satisfying Life
  • Awards and Honors: Five Olympic gymnastics medals, including one gold
  • Spouse: Shannon Kelley (divorced)
  • Children: Shayla, McKenna, Skyla, Emma
  • Notable Quote: "You give up your childhood. You miss proms and games and high school events, and people say it's awful...I say it was a good trade. You miss something but I think I gained more than I lost."

Early Life

Mary Lou Retton was born on Jan. 24, 1968, in Fairmont, West Virginia. She was the youngest of five children. Her father Ronnie Retton played basketball in college and was a minor league baseball player. Her mother Lois signed up Mary Lou for dance classes when she was 4, then enrolled her and her older sister in gymnastics classes at West Virginia University.

She didn't have to be pushed into working out. "I would sleep in my leotard on Friday nights because I was so excited about gymnastics on Saturday mornings," Retton told Texas Monthly magazine writer Skip Hollandsworth.

She later remembered at age 4 watching Olga Korbut skate in the 1972 Olympics for the Soviet Union and identifying with her courage and vigor. Four years later, it was Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci who caught her eye, inspiring dreams of Olympic gold.

Preparing to Compete

By the age of 12, Retton had become dedicated to gymnastics and was competing in national and international competitions. Her parents allowed her to move to Houston, Texas when she was 14 to study and train with gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, a Romanian defector who had previously coached Comaneci. She lived with the family of a fellow student and finished high school via correspondence courses while training 8-10 hours a day. She enjoyed the rigorous gymnastics schedule and flourished under Karolyi's coaching.

Retton stood out physically from many of the other female gymnasts. She was muscular, a change from the petite athletes that fans were accustomed to seeing in competition, even at the highest levels of the sport.

One month after beginning her training with Karolyi, Retton's team went to Madison Square Garden in New York, New York, for the McDonald's American Cup Competition. She wasn't ranked high enough to be invited but she went as a substitute. One of her teammates got injured and Karolyi put in Retton. She won the competition and set a meet record, putting her in contention for the 1984 Olympics only two years away.


By 1984, Retton had won 14 all-around competitions in a row and was expected to compete in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She was then 16 years old. The Soviet Union and most of its allies were boycotting the Games in response to the United States boycott of the 1980 Olympics.

About six weeks before the games were to start, Retton suffered a major knee injury, which turned out to be torn cartilage. She and her parents opted for minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery, which enabled Retton to walk immediately and to begin training after just one week of physical therapy.

In the weeks before the Games, Retton would lie in bed, her eyes closed, imagining each piece of equipment and each routine and performing perfectly. Then she imagined receiving the gold medal with "The Star-Spangled Banner" booming around her.

Olympic Showdown

Sometimes, creative visualization works. At the Olympics, she won the gold medal in women's gymnastics for the all-around competition. The win was dramatic. Coming into the last event, she was barely behind Ecaterina Szabo of Romania. Retton approached her event, the vault, needing a 9.95 out of 10 to tie Szabo for the gold medal, and a perfect score of 10 to win it outright. She scored a 10.

Olympic rules required that she perform another vault, although her first score still would count. So she landed another perfect 10.

In addition to the gold medal in the all-around event, Retton won an individual silver for the vault, a bronze for the uneven bars, another bronze for the floor exercise, and another silver as part of the team competition. The five medals were the most for any athlete at the 1984 Olympic Games.


Following her retirement from gymnastics in 1985 after winning her third American Cup title, Retton briefly attended the University of Texas at Austin. She married Shannon Kelley, whom she had met in college, in 1990, and they had four daughters: Shayla, McKenna, Skyla, and Emma. She made many commercials, appeared in several movies and television shows, and was a popular speaker.

Among the other recognition, Mary Lou Retton was the first woman to be featured on the front of a Wheaties box and she became a spokeswoman for the cereal brand. Through the many accolades and honors, she retained her fresh and "perky" personality and continued to convey a sense of being the "girl next door." She was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997.


Retton, Mary Lou. "Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion." Hardcover, First Edition edition, McGraw-Hill, September 1, 1985.

Retton, Mary Lou. "Mary Lou Retton's Gateways to Happiness: 7 Ways to a More Peaceful, More Prosperous, More Satisfying Life." Hardcover, Broadway, April 4, 2000.

Retton, Mary Lou. "The Olympic Dream and Spirit Volume 1: Stories of courage, perseverance and dedication." Mary Joe Fernandez, Bela Karolyi, et al., Paperback, Cross Training Pub, November 1, 1999.

"Retton, Mary Lou." Encyclopedia, The Gale Group, Inc., 2004.