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Motherhood nudges Mary Lou Retton into more public witness for Christ

HOUSTON (BP)–It was one of the greatest moments in Olympic history. For nine years of her young life, Mary Lou Retton had worked toward the moment. She needed a 9.95 to earn a tie for the individual all-around gymnastics title at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She needed perfection to win the title outright.

As half the world sat riveted to its television sets, the diminutive 16-year-old gymnast hurtled down the runway toward the vaulting horse. Hitting the springboard, she flipped through the air and nailed a perfect landing.

The 9,000 spectators at Pauley Pavilion leaped to their feet, screaming wildly. In homes around the globe, people smiled, cheered and cried tears of joy for the teenager from West Virginia.

Retton had just vaulted her way to Olympic superstardom, earning a perfect a 10. The flawless vault propelled Retton ahead of Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo and onto the podium as the youngest U.S. gymnast ever to win a medal and the first American woman to capture gold in any gymnastic event. Later, she added two silvers and two bronzes to her collection, and Retton’s total of five medals topped that of any other athlete in the 1984 Summer Games.

Suddenly, Retton was an international celebrity. Her exuberant smile brightened the covers of Life, Seventeen, Sports Illustrated, Time and Newsweek. She did dozens of television interviews and talk shows. Retton had the honor of being the first female athlete to be pictured on a Wheaties cereal box. She received numerous awards and accolades. Fan letters poured in from all over the globe.

For some athletes, Olympic glory fades quickly. They pick up their medals, enjoy the glare of the spotlight for weeks, maybe months. But then the crowds go away, reporters stop calling and they wander back into anonymity.

For Retton, the spotlight has never faded.

Fifteen years after her Olympic triumph, she is still one of the most popular and widely recognized athletes in the world. While her athletic accomplishments are impressive, they alone cannot account for her phenomenal popularity. After all, there have been many other athletes whose achievements have been just as significant. There were other Americans at the 1984 Olympics who earned gold medals. Somehow, what Retton accomplished and how she did it reached out and touched the hearts of millions. And nothing has happened in the intervening years to loosen that connection.

Retton was born and raised in Fairmont, W.Va., a tiny coal-mining town. She was the youngest of five children in a close, happy Italian-American family. Retton was the quintessential girl-next-door, reminding everyone of their daughter or sister or niece. She was bubbly and friendly and down-to-earth, radiating confidence and charm.

Retton’s powerful and dynamic style rocked the gymnastics world. In many ways, Retton embodied the American dream in 1984. From humble beginnings, she had risen to the pinnacle of her sport, achieving her goals through extraordinary determination and hard work. And she did it with heart-warming enthusiasm.

Although she retired from competition in 1986, Retton has remained active in the athletic community. During the past three Olympics, Retton worked as a commentator for NBC. In the 1992 and 1996 Games, she wrote a regular column for USA Today and hosted an Olympic highlights television show. She has also served as an adviser to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.

In addition to her ongoing work in sports, Retton has devoted much of her time to charities such as the Children’s Miracle Network. She occasionally guest stars on TV shows and in movies.

Now 31, Retton is happily married and living in Houston with her husband Shannon Kelley, and their two girls, Shayla and McKenna. Her fame and her personality have made her a popular speaker and a sought-after spokesperson for a variety of corporations, organizations and causes. For a number of years, she’s been on the speaker’s circuit, talking about winning and her Olympic experiences.

But in recent months, she’s found herself speaking out about something much more personal.

“I’m a Christian,” Retton says. “I believe in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for my sins.”

When people hear about her faith, they assume it must be a recent experience. Not so.

“I grew up in a very Christian home,” she says. “I’ve had the Lord in my heart [from a young age]. But since my husband and I were married, I’ve grown so much closer to God. We belong to a young couples’ Bible study group — it’s great fellowship. I love our church and our pastor,” she said of Second Baptist Church, Houston, and Ed Young.

While faith in Christ is not new for her, talking about it publicly is. Retton admits that she hasn’t discussed her faith in public very often, largely because of her personality and her public image.

“I’ve never been an ‘in-your-face’ type of person,” she explains. “I’ve always been ‘sweet Mary Lou.’ For years I felt that I needed to please everybody, make everybody happy, make everybody smile. They tell you not to talk about things like politics and religion, because it’s something everyone’s going to disagree on — you know, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ The most important thing to me was being a Christian deep inside, knowing Jesus was in my heart.”

For years, she had been content to witness about her Christian faith through her lifestyle. So why speak up now? The answer is found in the maturity that comes with motherhood.

“I guess I’m at a different stage in my life,” Retton says. “I’m a wife, I’m a mother. I’ve realized that I need to set that example in a more vocal way, in a public way — for my daughters. And part of being a Christian is getting the word out.”

That growing sense of responsibility has led her to look for opportunities to talk about her faith with others. She’s recently begun mentioning her faith in interviews and on talk-show appearances. Last summer she appeared in a series of television spots produced by the Southern Baptist Convention in their “Celebrate Jesus 2000” evangelistic campaign.

As if she needed something else to do.

These days, the biggest challenge for “Mary Lou the Mom” is finding time for all the things on her schedule. She’s juggling speaking dates, volunteer work and commercial shoots with her responsibilities as a wife and homemaker. Add to that the new requests from organizations asking her to talk about her faith.

“It’s really, really hard,” she admits. “It takes a lot of organization and a lot of preparation on a daily basis. I’m on the road an average of 15 days a month giving motivational speeches to different companies and making appearances. But my family is my first priority. My number one job is to be a wife and mother. So when it comes to my schedule, I have to set limits. I try not to work on weekends because weekends are family time. I don’t leave home for more than one night at a time. When I am home, I’m there 24 hours a day.”

Retton acknowledges that a schedule like hers could take its toll on any marriage. She and Shannon work hard to keep their relationship going strong.

“I’m so blessed that the Lord brought Shannon and me together,” she says. “We dated for five or six years before we got married, and we’ve been married eight years, so we’ve [known each other] about 15 years. We literally grew up together. My husband is truly my best friend — and my number one fan. I’m just so blessed.”

A go-getter like Retton always has something new to consider — new goals, projects, dreams. She’s accustomed to pursuing those things with the same determination and drive that propelled her to the height of Olympic glory.

Lately, though, Retton says she’s been learning about patience.

“There are things I’ve been working on for years, asking God for his guidance and direction. But it doesn’t work on my timeline; it works on the Lord’s timeline. That’s been very frustrating to me. The society we live in says, ‘I want it, and I want it now.’ I’m trying to accept that sometimes my prayers are answered, ‘No.’ Sometimes when the Lord doesn’t give me something or answer my prayer right away, he’s protecting me. I may not be ready for a certain thing at this point in my life. I just have to be patient and totally trust him.”

Retton has a piece of paper taped to her desk that reads: “Good morning. This is God. I will be handling all of your problems today. I will not need your help. So, have a good day.”

“Isn’t that great,” Retton says. “I love it. That’s what I try to live my day by, not stressing over the little things, the things that are out of our control. ‘Cause we can worry ourselves sick — and worry is such a sin. Just give it to God.”

Ditchfield is a writer in Sarasota, Fla. Used by permission from the sports channel of Crosswalk.com, an Internet portal featuring news, sports, business and various other informational channels at www.crosswalk.com.

    About the Author

  • Christin Ditchfield