January 11, 2022 3 min read
Olympian Mary Lou Retton single-handedly sparked a gymnastics craze in the United States. After she earned five medals for the USA at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, gymnastics club enrollments in the nation grew by over 40%.
Retton was the first female gymnast outside of Eastern Europe to win the gold in the women’s all-around, which made her one of the most popular athletes in the country. Her electric smile and dynamic routines turned her into a national - and international - sensation.
Mary Lou Retton was born on January 24, 1968, in Fairmont, West Virginia. She became enamored with gymnastics at a young age, inspired by Nadia Comăneci earning the perfect 10 in the 1976 Olympics.
When Nadia’s coach, Bela Karolyi, defected to the United States from Romania, Mary Lou Retton moved to Houston, Texas to train with him. Karolyi had helped Nadia achieve perfection, and Retton wanted to achieve it too.
Under Karolyi’s careful instruction, Mary Lou Retton developed the best style and technique for her small, compact frame. Her hard work helped her to win the American Cup, American Classic, and Japan’s Chunichi Cup in 1983 - and she placed second in the U.S. Nationals the very same year. These were all incredible feats, but Retton’s eyes were on a bigger prize.
In 1984, Mary Lou Retton simultaneously peaked and plummeted. She repeated as champion of the American Cup, took first at the U.S Nationals, and swept the competition at the U.S. Olympic Trials - but then it all came crashing down.
Retton suffered a serious leg injury going into the Olympics, and was forced to undergo surgery. No one was sure if she would be able to compete, but Retton was determined. Though her window for recovery was short, and her leg was incredibly painful, Retton pushed on.
During her sophomore year of highschool, Mary Lou Retton competed on the world stage at the Los Angeles Olympics. On August 3, 1984, she entered the final night of competition for the all-around event.
Presumptive favorite, Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo, was battling Retton neck and neck for the title. In order for Retton to take home the gold, she would have to pull out a perfect score on the last event of the evening - the vault.
The air was incredibly tense as Retton headed into her event. Then, moments later, she was soaring through the air, completing an effortless double Tsukahara - and perfectly sticking the landing. When the score of “10.00” flashed across the board, she knew she had won.
Mary Lou Retton beat our Ecaterina Szabo by a mere 0.05 points, squeezing ahead to become the first American woman to ever win the all-around gold medal at the Olympics. She also brought home two silver medals and two bronze medals for America.
Inspiring a new generation of athletes
Before Mary Lou Retton, gymnastics had been dominated by Eastern Bloc. Now, young American athletes saw Retton’s success and realized they could earn gold too. The sport of gymnastics became popular in the United States unlike ever before, and Retton rocketed to absolute stardom.
Due to her great success at the Olympics, Retton became the first female athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties cereal. She was also named Sportswoman of the Year by Sports Illustrated magazine.
By the end of 1984, Mary Lou Retton was arguably America’s most famous woman - and she earned every minute of her time in the spotlight. Though she retired in 1986, she left an inspiring legacy behind. Retton was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997, and in January 2020, was the first woman inducted into the Houston Sports Hall of Fame.
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