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As Mary Lou Retton’s Condition Takes a Turn For the Better, A Look Back at the Champion’s Amazing Will To Overcome

She's always been a fighter — and we pray that this is another fight she's going to win


Mary Lou Retton, who won the hearts of the nation when she made history as the first American gymnast to win an Olympic individual all-round gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics, remains in an intensive care unit, but her condition is improving according to her daughter.

“UPDATE! We’re thrilled to share some uplifting news. Mom’s progress is truly remarkable. Prayers have been felt and are being answered,” Retton’s daughter McKenna Kelley, 26, began an Instagram update on Sunday, October 15. “Although she remains in [the] ICU, her path to recovery is steadily progressing.”

McKenna went on to state that her mother’s “fighting spirit is truly inspiring,” adding, “Her breathing is becoming stronger, and her reliance on machines is diminishing. Though it’s a lengthy journey, witnessing these improvements is incredibly heartening! She’s beginning to respond to treatments.”

Last Wednesday, McKenna shared on Instagram: “My sisters Skyla, Shayla, Emma and I would like to thank everyone for the outpouring of love and support for our Mom.”

Last Tuesday, Kelley revealed that Retton, 55, is in the intensive care unit, battling a very rare form of pneumonia and “fighting for her life,” according to a statement shared by her daughter, McKenna Kelley, on a fundraising page. Kelly reported that her mother is “not able to breathe on her own.”

Since then, financial support has poured in as Retton “continues to fight.” As of this Monday afternoon, a fundraiser page for the legendary Olympian has received just more than $439,000 in donations — far exceeding the stated goal of $50,000.

We’re keeping Retton and her family in our thoughts and prayers during this challenging time, and taking a look back at the remarkable achievements that made her a hero to so many of us.

Mary Lou Retton’s early days

Retton was born in Fairmont, West Virginia in 1968. As a child, she was inspired by watching Nadia Comăneci in the 1976 Olympics, where the Romanian athlete made history as the first gymnast to win a perfect 10. She began taking gymnastics classes, and her natural talents were readily apparent. Soon enough, she moved to Houston, Texas to train with Béla and Márta Károlyi, Comăneci’s former coaches. By the early ’80s, the young athlete was a rising star in the gymnastics world, and her stunning success in 1984 made her a household name.

Mary Lou Retton at 1981 National Sports Festival
Mary Lou Retton, 13, at the National Sports Festival in 1981David Madison/Getty

1984: A historic win

Mary Lou Retton gave a truly dazzling performance at the 1984 Olympic Games when she was only 16. Not only did she win the gold medal, she also received more medals than any other athlete that year, with two silver medals for her performance on the vault and in the team event, and two bronze medals for the uneven bars and floor. With five medals total, and perfect 10s on the floor and vault, she became the poster girl for American olympics.

Mary Lou Retton with her gold medal in 1984
Mary Lou Retton, 16, with her gold medal in 1984© Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty

Retton’s achievement was made even more impressive due to the adversity she faced. After a promising showing at the Olympics trials, she injured her knee during practice, requiring an urgent surgery just five weeks before the Olympic Games took place.

Mary Lou Retton flips through the air at the 1984 Olympics
Mary Lou Retton flips through the air during the 1984 OlympicsFocus on Sport/Getty

Speaking to Woman’s World in 2016, Retton recalled the intensity of her training: “We worked out all day long. It was literally eight hours every day. I lived it. I breathed it. I ate it. I slept it,” she said. “Gymnastics is a very brutal sport, especially back in the ’80s.”

Mary Lou Retton on the vault at the 1984 Olympics
Mary Lou Retton takes the vault at the 1984 OlympicsFocus on Sport/Getty

Retton worked extremely hard for her well-deserved win, and the fact that it happened at the first Summer Olympics hosted in the US since 1932 made it particularly special. Retton’s win made fans around the US feel extra patriotic, and countless girls who watched her were inspired to start training in gymnastics.

Mary Lou Retton on the balance beam at the 1984 Olympics
Mary Lou Retton on the balance beam at the 1984 OlympicsBettmann/Getty

Mary Lou Retton’s post-Olympics career

Following the 1984 Olympics, Mary Lou Retton was dubbed “America’s sweetheart.” She had frequent media appearances and endorsement deals, met President Ronald Reagan and was featured on a Wheaties box. While she didn’t compete in the Olympics again, she won the American Cup in 1985.

In 1986, Retton announced her retirement. As she told NBC, “I knew that I was not going to be one of those athletes that’s just hanging onto the sport and couldn’t retire… I wanted people to remember me as a winner and as a champion and not some struggling older athlete.” Following her retirement, a park and street in her hometown were named after her, and in 1997, she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Retton relished her cultural icon status, appearing as herself in TV shows like Guiding Light, Knots Landing and Baywatch and movies like Scrooged and Naked Gun 33 ⅓: The Final Insult.

1985 headshot of Mary Lou Retton
A 1985 headshot of Mary Lou RettonMichael Ochs Archives/Getty

Mary Lou Retton’s personal life

Retton went to college at the University of Texas following her retirement, and met her future husband, quarterback turned businessman and coach Shannon Kelley. The ultra-athletic couple married in 1990 (they would divorce in 2018, after 27 years of marriage) and had four daughters, Shayla, McKenna, Skyla and Emma. Unsurprisingly, two of her daughters followed in her footsteps, with Mckenna and Emma becoming gymnasts at Louisiana State University and University of Arkansas, respectively.

Mary Lou Retton posing with her husband, Shannon Kelley, in 1995
Mary Lou Retton posing with her husband, Shannon Kelley, in 1995Barbara Laing/Getty

In her Woman’s World interview, Retton revealed that following the births of her daughters, she dealt with arthritis and other chronic pain issues, requiring major surgeries in her 30s and 40s. As she described it, “It all started after I had all my babies. I’m a little person. I’m 4’9″, and having four babies just sucked my calcium out of me! I can remember being in my 30s with a household of little girls. We had Barbie dolls and baby dolls everywhere and I could literally not get down on the ground to play with them.” Thankfully, she was ultimately able to manage her pain and take time to care with her kids, finding relief by maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle.

Mary Lou Retton with her daughter, Shayla, in 1995
Mary Lou Retton with her daughter, Shayla, in 1995Barbara Laing/Getty

Mary Lou Retton’s recent past

The news of Retton’s hospitalization came as a shock, as she’s been keeping active in recent years. She’s been a frequent commentator for televised gymnastics, and continued to have endorsement deals and make appearances at events. In 2018, she competed on Dancing With the Stars, and lasted until week six.

Mary Lou Retton in 'Dancing With the Stars' costume, 2018
Mary Lou Retton strikes a pose in her Dancing With the Stars costume in 2018David Livingston/Getty

In her Woman’s World interview, Retton maintained that even though she was no longer an athlete, the value of movement would never leave her. “I’ve been active my entire life,” she said. “I’ve always been a fitness ambassador even after I retired from competitive gymnastics… And I want everybody to have that healthy future like myself.”

Retton also shared some valuable advice for our readers: “I encourage people who are afraid to go out there and move — start a walking program,” she said. “Get out and walk just a couple blocks. The next day, add a little bit more. And it’s not to lose weight, it’s to be healthy. There’s a difference.” We hope and pray that Retton’s good health returns and take her advice very much to heart.

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