Mary Lou Retton stays true to her roots

Posted Friday, Feb. 21, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Retton highlights

Relive Mary Lou Retton’s golden moment by watching a video of her two “perfect 10” vaults, and watch her play herself in RadioShack’s “The Phone Call” commercial at Star-Telegram.com/living.

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Because she is perfectly punctual, Mary Lou Retton called me at exactly 2 p.m. Tuesday, as we’d arranged.

I, running a few minutes late, fumbled around my desk to find the questions I’d scribbled on scrap paper. I asked her to hang on while I woke up my computer to type notes. I yammered and stammered like a nervous novice. And then, I broke the freshman rule of reporting and declared my love for her.

“You were, like, one of my biggest childhood heroes,” I professed. “I was going into third grade the summer of the ’84 Olympics. I bought your famous American flag leotard and wore it to school and gave a book report on the first little biography that came out about you.”

Because she is perfectly nice, she replied, “That is so sweet.”

I think my first question was about her kids, but I don’t remember because my brain was still lit up like an LED scoreboard, congratulating itself on the “Perfect 10” connection I’d just made with my hero.

In case you were not alive in the ’80s or were too wired on Nerds, Zooks or Hubba Bubba Bubble Gum to remember them, gymnast Mary Lou Retton vaulted — literally — into sports history and pop culture superstardom when she won five medals in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In one of the most iconic Olympic moments of all time, she scored perfect 10s on two consecutive vaults to become the first American to win the all-around gold. The perky, pixie-size gymnast with the wide-tooth smile famously became the first female to grace the cover of a Wheaties cereal box; she remains one of the most popular American athletes of all time.

Now 46, Retton and her longtime husband, Shannon Kelley, live in Houston. The oldest of their four girls attends Baylor University, and their youngest is 11; three of the four are gymnasts. An in-demand speaker, Retton will give the keynote address at a Union Gospel Mission benefit luncheon Tuesday in Fort Worth ( www.ugm-tc.org).

Because she is perfectly appealing, the $100 per person event is sold out.

Retton got a booster shot of fame this month when she appeared as herself — an ’80s icon, along with ALF, Hulk Hogan and others — in the buzzy RadioShack Super Bowl commercial “The Phone Call.”

Here is more of our conversation about her life as a sports mom, modern-day Olympic pressures and the fact that life hasn’t always been perfectly perfect.

What will you be speaking about in Fort Worth?

My speech is about having the competitive edge. It’s the underdog story of a little girl from the hills of West Virginia — I was a coal miner’s daughter  ...  I was 7 years old watching Nadia Comaneci and I was enthralled and said, “I’m going to do that.” The seed was placed in me the summer of 1976.

But coming where I’m from, people blew me off and said, “Sure, honey, sure.” I was born with that “I’ll show you” mentality ... Believe me, I went through a lot of adversity and overcoming challenges in my life.

How do you feel about being famous for something that happened 30 years ago? Are you ever like, “Get over it already. Move on. That was a long time ago.”

You know, I’m very grateful. I have such gratitude that people remember me in that light, even though it was 30 years ago. I’m in such a different state now, a different life ... I’m in the mom mode. But it was an amazing moment.

I was so, so driven. I was born into a very loud, crazy Italian family; I was the youngest of five kids. Athletics was our out; we were all scholarship athletes. I thought, “I’ll get your attention. I’ll go to the Olympics.” I think either God gives you that or he doesn’t.

What role has faith played in your life?

Jesus is my Lord and Savior. I knew he was with me [at the Olympics]; he gave me my talent. I definitely have a better relationship with Christ now; it’s matured and grown. It’s the core of who [my family is] now.

What kind of sports mom are you?

A lot of times [one of my girls] will come home after tumbling and say something like, “My legs hurt; you just don’t know,” and they’ll stop halfway through and say, “You do know.” I’m like the model [sports] mom. I drop them off and pick them up; I would never coach my own daughter.

I think a parent’s role is to be there for a shoulder to cry on or a big hug because they’ve learned a new skill. I’ve been so, so blessed to understand exactly what my daughters are going through. Very rarely they’ll ask for [gymnastics] direction, and I’ll give them my critique. A lot of times I’ll get, “Gosh, Mom, we don’t do it that way anymore.”

Do your girls have Olympic aspirations?

My 16-year-old might. It’s on the back burner now. My 11-year-old says, “I want to go to the Olympics ...” I would support my children in any way possible, because I was given that.

Are the pressures for Olympic athletes the same now as they were when you competed?

I think they’re the same. If you can’t deal with the pressures of competition and competing under scrutiny that we do, then you’re in the wrong sport. As they say, if you can’t handle it, get out of the kitchen.

That’s why I was working eight hours a day under a communist coach (the legendary Bela Karolyi) who was so tough on me. I was so driven. I thrived under that. That’s what I wanted to do to compete. If you don’t have that fire in you like that, then you need to get out of what you’re doing.

What about the pressures after someone has won the gold medal, for media and sponsorships and exposure?

I was kind of your all-American girl. I had a family who, like, would slap me down if I got too big for my britches. I had a dream, a goal, I did it. And, yeah, the world knows me, but my family’s like, “We’re all athletes. You’re not any better than us.” They never let me get the conceited mind-set of a lot of athletes I see. I have no tolerance for that.

You certainly were a role model for my generation. Now that you have girls, how do you feel about the female role models out there today?

I did an interview with ESPN about how ... if [women] want the big endorsements now, you have to be sexual. I was the all-American 16-year-old — apple pie, Chevrolet and baseball — I would have never ... degraded myself to sexualize myself. Believe me, I was offered all kinds of things that were not desirable — the sickos came out after I won.

[Sexualizing themselves] is how women athletes think they have to get attention these days. They don’t. I think we can give back to the heart of America; [my four daughters and I] are dying for that. I try and project that, that their mommy never did that.

How fun was that RadioShack commercial? That was you, right?

You know, I got offered that on email and I thought, “How funny.” I’ve never been one to back down of making fun of myself. That’s the best humor.

The biggest question I got on Twitter (@ marylouretton) was, “Is that really you?” It was, actually. I just had a white leotard and a wig on.

We filmed it for two-and-a-half or three days in L.A. in mid-January, so it was a quick turnaround [for the Super Bowl on Feb. 2]. I was under strict contract; I couldn’t tell people.

If you hadn’t pursued gymnastics, what would you have grown up to be?

I think I would have been a kindergarten or first grade teacher. I love kids. I think because of my size (4-foot-9), they’re not intimidated by me.

Do you still eat Wheaties?

(She laughs.) Yes, I do. Not every day, but absolutely I do. It’s definitely a staple in my pantry.

Stephanie Allmon, 817-390-7852 Twitter: @STFeatures

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