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Mary Lou Retton Today: A Powerhouse in a Tiny Body

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by Leslie Farin

A powerhouse in a tiny body

I was a fan of Mary Lou Retton’s long before I attended the 4word 2021 Virtual Gala this past Saturday night. However, after listening to her interview with Molly Fletcher, who you may know as the first female sports agent, I love her even more. Standing tall at only 4’9″, she’s a powerhouse in a tiny body.

I vividly remember Mary Lou Retton’s performance in the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles. There, she became the first American woman to win the all-around gold medal in an Olympic Games, then went on to win four additional medals, two silvers and two bronzes. Catapulted to fame at only 16 years old, she became one of the most popular athletes in the United States overnight. Sports Illustrated named her the Sportswoman of the Year that same year, and she was the first female athlete to appear on a Wheaties box. Later she was inducted into the Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

Molly Fletcher, Mary Lou Retton and Diane Paddison (Founder of 4Word) at the Gala
Molly Fletcher, Mary Lou Retton and Diane Paddison (Founder of 4Word) at the Gala. Photo credit: courtesy of 4word.

My love affair with Mary Lou Retton began in 1984

I was a gymnast too. Just to be clear though, my talent did not compare to Mary Lou’s in any way, shape or form. Still, I made the varsity gymnastics team in high school, loving every minute of it. Throughout the 1984 games, I watched the gymnastic performances obsessively, particularly enamored with Mary Lou Retton. 

Not such a storybook life

As I listened to her talk at the gala, I realized there is a great deal I don’t know about Mary Lou Retton. I can talk about her gymnastic achievements at the drop of a hat, but she is so much more than her Olympic medals. From a distance, we see her seemingly storybook life, but the reality is she’s human, like the rest of us. There’s a lot of strength behind her bright smile, but also some vulnerability. 

A self-professed “redneck” from West Virginia, Retton left her close knit Italian family and moved to Houston at age seven to live with a Romanian gymnastics coach who spotted her at an event. It was hard, but she never looked back. Even at that young age, she knew what she wanted.

She was trained to win, which means she worked hard for many hours a day often with significant pain. Only six weeks before the 1984 Olympics, she required extensive knee surgery.  Arthroscopic surgery was brand new at that time and no one knew if the procedure would be successful.

While in Los Angeles, doctors told her to go home, that there would be other Olympic games. Determined to compete for a chance at her dreams, she insisted on entering the events. She came this far, and was not going to leave without giving it her all. 

Now, I’m not advocating that young people chance destroying their bodies for a sport. Retton mentioned herself during the interview that pushing herself the way she did resulted in physical issues later in life. But I respect her desire to at least try; she did not want to have regrets. And try she did; her performance was not only flawless, she made it look easy. One of her most popular quotes, “Don’t have regrets, just try it. We learn so much more from our failures than our successes.” is one I often think about in my own life.

Advice from Mary Lou Retton

This steely determination remained with Retton throughout her life. Often she had to “dig deep” to get through tough times. she credits her strong Christian faith for helping her through them. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. She shared this quote during the interview, 

“Erase the word “failure” from your vocabulary. No case is ever truly closed, and no challenge is ever over.”

 Today, Mary Lou Retton continues to touch millions of lives as a motivational speaker, corporate spokesperson, author and “Fitness Ambassador”.  A budding actress, she also has many television and motion picture credits to her name. She is a positive role model and brings spirit and a commitment to excellence in all she does.

As a new empty nester, Retton confessed she struggles with her purpose.  Most of us need a purpose in life; it drives everything. She also shared she recently ended a 28 year marriage. Though an unhealthy situation, she still feels divorce is a failure. She said, “As an athlete trained to win, I hate being vulnerable”. Intellectually and emotionally, she knows she did the right thing for all involved. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. As many in her situation know, it is scary to make drastic life changes, no matter how necessary. Now more than ever, she needs to heed the advice she gave to others over the years.  She knows her faith will help guide her through this tough time as it has in the past. I’ll leave you with another popular quote from Mary Lou Retton,

“Even though it may seem counterintuitive, a comfort zone is a dangerous place to be.”



About 4Word Women: This faith-based organization champions ten years of empowering and inspiring Christian women in the workplace though personal connection and mentorship to reach their potential with confidence. If you are interested in joining their women’s network or making a donation, please visit

Thank you to Susan Friedman of Friedman PR for inviting me to this special event.


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