Mary Lou Retton

Olympic Gymnast

Mary Lou Retton Performing on Balance Beam
Mary Lou Retton Performing on Balance Beam. Bettmann / Getty Images

Known for: women's Olympics gymnast champion; first American woman gymnast to win Olympic gold for the all-around event; most Olympic medals of any athlete at the 1984 Olympics; warm style, enthusiastic personality, pixie haircut; more muscular build than many women gymnasts

Dates: January 24, 1968 -

About Mary Lou Retton

Mary Lou Retton was born in West Virginia in 1968. Her father had played football in college and had been a minor league baseball player. Her mother began her in dance classes when Mary Lou was four, and then enrolled Mary Lou and her older sister in gymnastics classes at West Virginia University.

By the age of 12, Mary Lou Retton had become dedicated to gymnastics, and competed in national and international competitions. Her parents allowed her to move to Houston, Texas, when she was 14, to study with gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, who had earlier coached Nadia Comaneci. She lived with the family of a fellow student and finished high school via correspondence courses. She enjoyed the rigorous training and flourished under Karolyi's coaching.

By 1984, Mary Lou Retton had won 14 all-around competitions in a row, and was expected to compete in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where 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 Olympics, Mary Lou Retton had knee trouble, and it turned out to be torn cartilage. She decided to have the surgery and accelerate the usual 3-month rehabilitation, recovering enough to compete within three weeks.

At the Olympics, she won the Olympic gold medal in women's gymnastics for the all-around event. The win was dramatic; coming into the last event, she was barely behind Ecaterina Szabo, and then achieved a perfect 10 in her last event, the vault -- and repeated it, though the first 10 would count.

Mary Lou Retton won, in addition to the gold medal for the all-around event, an individual silver for the vault, bronze for the uneven bars, bronze for the floor exercise, and a silver as part of the United States women's gymnastic team. The five medals were the most for any athlete at the 1984 Olympics.

After her retirement from amateur gymnastics, Mary Lou Retton briefly attended the University of Texas at Austin. She married in 1990, and had four daughters. She made many commercials, appeared in several movies and television shows, and was a popular speaker. Among other recognition, Mary Lou Retton was the first woman to be featured on a Wheaties box front, and she became a spokeswoman for Wheaties. Through many accolades and honors, she retained a fresh and "perky" personality, and conveyed a sense of being the "girl next door."

Print Resources

  • Mary Lou Retton, with Bela Karolyi and John Powers. Mary Lou: Creating an Olympic Champion. 1986.
  • Mary Lou Retton. Mary Lou Retton's Gateways to Happiness: Seven Ways to a More Peaceful, More Prosperous, More Satisfying Life. 2000.
  • The Olympic Dream and Spirit: Stories of Courage, Perseverance, and Dedication. 1999.

More About Mary Lou Retton

Sport: gymnastics

Country Represented: United States


  • 1984, gymnastics, United States (USSR and many allied teams boycotted the 1984 Olympics)
  • 1988 and later Olympics as a commentator

Also known as: America's Sweetheart

Occupation: celebrity spokesperson, writer, homemaker

Height: 4'9"


  • first US woman to win an Olympic gold medal in women's gymnastics all-around event (August 3, 1984)
  • most medals (five) of any athlete in the 1984 Olympics

Honors, Awards:

  • 1984 - Sports Illustrated Sportswoman of the Year
  • 1984 - Amateur Athlete of the Year, Associated Press
  • U.S. Olympic Committee in 1984 created the Mary Lou Retton Award - athletic excellence
  • 1993 - Most Popular Athlete in America, Associated Press
  • 1995 - Flo Hyman Award, Women's Sports Foundation
  • 1997 - International Gymnastics Hall of Fame


  • gymnastics classes, West Virginia University
  • coaching, Bela Karolyi
  • high school: correspondence courses
  • University of Texas at Austin, after retirement from gymnastics


  • Mother: Lois Retton, homemaker
  • Father: Ron Retton, security guard; business owner, coal transportation equipment; former basketball and baseball player
  • Siblings: four brothers and sisters

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Shannon Kelley (married December 29, 1990; broker; former football player)
  • children: 4 daughters (Shalya, McKenna, Skyla, Emma)

Religion: Baptist