If she had listened to the doubters, Mary Lou Retton would never have set foot on the competition floor at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Retton was the guest speaker last week at the Jackson County Community Foundation’s annual Community Celebration Dinner. Retton’s remarks centered around overcoming adversity to achieve success.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there. People like me weren’t supposed to go to the Olympics,” she said. “I was that self-taught kid tumbling in my front yard.”
Retton had to overcome a lot of limitations placed on her by other people as well as herself.
Once she started to see that her dreams were valid and within her grasp, doors began to open.
During her remarks, she recalled being approached by Bela Karolyi at a competition in Reno, Nevada. She couldn’t believe he would notice her.
“I swear I’m looking around the room to see if there’s another short little gymnast named Mary Lou in the vicinity,” she said.
She recalled the conversation Karolyi had with her parents – how he thought Retton had the potential to be an Olympic athlete but that he could not guarantee her a spot on the team. There were a lot of questions. Here was a 14-year-old kid who would have to leave everything behind – school, family and friends – in order to follow a seemingly impossible dream.
“It was literally like going off to see the Wizard of Oz,” she recalled.
Retton said she often asks herself if she would allow one of her own children to follow their passion, as her family allowed her to do those years ago.
“I would have to let them go,” she said.
And so off went Retton, training with a man who, years before, had trained her idol Nadia Comeneci. Retton went from her usual routine of performing one or two exercises on each apparatus to performing up to 15 in order to prepare for competition in which perfection is the goal and scores are calculated to the hundredths of a point.
Retton got a big break at the 1983 American Cup, a competition usually dominated by the Eastern Bloc. It was at Madison Square Garden in New York, and Retton was a substitute riding the pine – until the lead competitor pulled a muscle and couldn’t compete.
Suddenly Retton was up, and how she reacted mentally would determine everything.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose.’ I’m this last-minute substitute. If I mess up, no one will even notice. But if I did well, it would open up a huge door for me. And when that door opens up, you’ve got to go through it,” she said.
Everything changed for Retton when she won. Suddenly, it was her on the magazine covers. Suddenly, other girls were whispering about her at the competitions.
Retton was on the road to the Olympics, but it was about to get rocky. When you’re training at that level, there’s always a certain amount of pain, she said.
“You’re always working with a little bit of aches and pains,” she said. “When my knee was hurting, I didn’t complain about it.”
She was working out about eight hours a day. One day, literally in the eighth hour, on the last tumbling pass of the last floor routine, Retton was in the air and felt her knee pop. Then it locked up. Karolyi told her to go to her room and sleep it off. The next day it was worse, and she was rushed to the emergency room.
The doctor told her she needed immediate surgery, which meant pain, rehabilitation, and probably the end of her Olympic dreams.
“At this point, I was looking for the camera in the room,” she said.
The doctor had no idea that two weeks earlier, Retton had just gotten back from the Olympic trials, where she had EARNED a spot on the Olympic team, a spot even Karolyi had said he couldn’t guarantee. And here was this doctor telling her she should just maybe go back to Fairmont, West Virginia.
“Nobody was going to tell me what I can and can’t do. I’ve already heard that. I can’t live with that,” she said.
The rest, as they say, is history. Retton spent the next six weeks rehabilitating her leg and stepped onto the floor at the 1984 Olympic Games ready to compete.
And she dominated.
She won the all-around gold medal in women’s gymnastics, becoming the first American woman ever to win a gold medal in gymnastics. She also won silver medals for team and vault, and bronze medals for the uneven bars and floor exercise. Her five medals were the most won by any athlete at the 1984 Olympics and pushed her into the international spotlight.
Included in the crowd at last week’s dinner were local youth gymnasts from Gymfiniti in Jackson County. They were particularly special audience members for Retton.
“That’s who I was,” she said. “I had this crazy dream of one day thinking I was going to be in the Olympics and possibly win the Olympics. And it happened. Dreams do happen with a lot of hard work and dedication and a lot of sacrifices. No dream is too big to dream about, think about and achieve.”
Lacey Ferrell, a 10-year-old gymnast with Gymfiniti, took Retton’s words to heart.
“I thought it was awesome to meet her just because I grew up doing gymnastics, and it’s so cool cause we look up to her. I look up to her because one day I hope I can be just like her,” she said.
Gymfiniti owner and performance team coach Kati Skeen said meeting Retton was a wonderful opportunity for the girls.
“It’s something that can help motivate them, help to push them, help to show them that anything is achievable and anything is possible with their future if they work hard enough for it. Hard work pays off. That’s what I took from it, and that’s what I hope the girls took from it,” Skeen said.