Mary Lou Retton Delivers 2019 McLane Lecture
April 24, 2019
Belton, Texas – On Wednesday, April 24, Mary Lou Retton, the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics, delivered the 2019 McLane Lecture at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. Retton shared a message of resilience and determination.
During his introduction of Retton, Drayton McLane Jr. recalled how his family, along with the rest of the nation, became mesmerized by her road to Olympic glory.
“We didn’t really understand what gymnastics were. We got captivated, and we couldn’t go to work, couldn’t do anything. We stayed home and watched [her] on TV.
McLane celebrated not just Retton’s success, but also the way in which she had to face struggles to achieve it.
“She has overcome so many hardships, but she continues to radiate and to shine,” McLane said.
Following McLane’s introduction, a short video was played, highlighting Retton’s final two rounds of competition in the 1984 Summer Olympics. With just two components left, she trailed by fifteen hundredths of a point. She fought back, turning in flawless performances and earning perfect ten-point scores on both her floor exercise and vault, to win the Olympic gold.
I wasn’t supposed to be there, and I certainly wasn’t supposed to do that. Gold medal gymnasts didn’t come from America, and American gymnasts didn’t come from West Virginia.
Mary Lou Retton
Mary Lou Retton
Retton’s journey required hard work, dedication, and sacrifice.
“I had to leave comfort zones,” Retton said. “I had to be resilient, but, most importantly, I had to learn how to seize the moment when my opportunity came.”
At the age of fourteen, Retton was accepted into the tutelage of the sport’s most celebrated coach, Béla Károlyi. It was a life-changing opportunity that required to her to change her life entirely. Though it would require her to move without her family to Houston for training, she begged her parents to let her go.
I remember, at fourteen, telling my parents that I [couldn’t] live my life wondering, ‘What if. . . ?’
With her parents’ blessing, Retton packed all of her possessions into two gym bags and set out for Texas. She moved in with a family of strangers and began training eight hours every day.
Retton recalled grueling training sessions and non-stop competition to defend her spot on the team.
“When we walked in the gym, we knew it was go-time, and there was somebody waiting to take my spot if I happened to be lazy that day,” Retton said. “That’s how competitive it was. That’s how close it was.”
“That’s the difference between making an Olympic team or not,” Retton said. “I won that Olympic gold medal by five hundredths of a point. That’s the smallest margin that you can beat somebody by.”
Even after she had secured her position, Retton’s road to the games was anything but smooth. At age sixteen, just six weeks before the opening ceremonies, Retton experienced a catastrophic knee injury which required immediate surgery.
“To say the least, the doctors were not optimistic about my chances,” Retton recalled. “Some said, ‘No way. Go back home to West Virginia. Wait until the next Olympics.’”
“It was at that moment, I felt a surge in my stomach, and I know it was the Holy Spirit,” Retton said. “He was blessing me and telling me, ‘You can do this.’”
Retton was barely out of recovery when she was put on a return flight to Houston. The next day, she was back in the gym, willing herself through one of the hardest trials of her life.
“You train for your entire career to peak at Olympic-shape, and I was there,” Retton recalled. “Suddenly, I was learning how to walk again.”
Within two weeks, she was back to training on every piece of apparatus. A month later, she was standing atop the medal stand, listening to American national anthem being played in her honor. Retton would go on to win five medals during the 1984 Olympics, the most won by any athlete during that summer’s games.
She recalled the way her life “flipped upside down” following the games, including paying several visits to Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the White House and becoming the first woman ever featured on a Wheaties box.
“Don’t let other people put limitations on you,” Retton said. “Taking those risks and meeting those challenges head-on is sometimes the only way to make your dreams come true.”
Following Retton’s speech, she was surprised to see the rest of the platform party stand up, holding scorecards that each read “10.”
“That’s the first ‘perfect 10’ in the history of the McLane Lecture,” UMHB Provost John Vassar said.
The McLane Lecture brings internationally recognized speakers to UMHB each year to share their experiences and insights about leadership, government, business, and faith. The annual lecture is offered through the generosity of Temple residents Elizabeth and Drayton McLane Jr.