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Olympian Mary Lou Retton Gives an Update on Her Battle with Rare Form of Pneumonia

Hailed as “America’s Sweetheart,” the Hall of Famer and gold medalist has led an active life since retiring from the sport despite some bumps in the road along the way. 

By Andrew Woodin
Kelly Clarkson, Peyton Manning & Mike Tirico Preview Paris Olympics Opening Ceremony

Thanks to her tour-de-force performance at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California, one that exuded explosive strength and unparalleled grit, gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the face of Team USA and the gold standard for which Olympians all across the globe would strive to emulate.

The gutsy heroics of the then-16-year-old Retton from Fairmont, West Virginia landed her not one, but two perfect 10’s, propelling her to become the first American woman to win a gold medal in the coveted All-Around competition. She tacked on silver medals in the vault and team categories as well as bronze medals in the uneven bars and floor exercises to become the most decorated Olympic athlete at that year’s Games.

While she was the inspirational engine for modern-day, American gymnastics icons like Simone Biles, Suni Lee, and Shawn Johnson credit the role model’s insatiable zest for life and unwavering exuberance as her greatest and most impactful attributes of her incredible legacy.

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Mary Lou Retton's Life After the Olympics

After her Olympic dominance earned her the title of Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” award that year, Mary Lou Retton’s immense popularity continued to skyrocket, resulting in a cascade of mainstream media appearances that now spans four decades.

As the first female athlete to grace the cover of a Wheaties cereal box, the former White House guest of President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy parlayed her wholesome image into not only a vast spectrum of commercial endorsements and talk show appearances, but also into several film and television roles. In addition to her cameos alongside Bill Murray in 1988’s Scrooged and Knots Landing in 1992, Retton would go on to appear on Baywatch in 1993 and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult. Before appearing on the 27th season of Dancing with the Stars in 2018, the Olympic legend even hosted her own unscripted TV show Mary Lou’s Flip Flop Shop in 2002.

Why did Mary Lou Retton retire?

Despite her triumphant achievements at the 1984 Olympic Games, her three American Cup victories, and Japan’s prestigious Chunichi Cup, at the age of 18, just two years after her historic Olympic performance in Los Angeles, Mary Lou Retton made the enormously difficult decision to retire. In an interview with the New York Times in 1986, Retton, who became the youngest inductee into the U.S. Olympics Hall of Fame in 1985, revealed that she had her heart set on pursuing collegiate education.

''My decision to retire was based on my feeling that I have achieved the goals as a gymnast that I set out for myself several years ago,'' noted Retton. 

''My goals are now toward college,'' she continued. ''But I'll always be a part of gymnastics, whether as a commentator or coaching. I've spent my whole life in the gym — 11 years of hard work. Now I have the rest of my life to do what I want.''

Retton stayed true to her desire to pursue higher education and attended the University of Texas. Utilizing her concentration in communications to the fullest, Retton combined her athletic knowledge with her academic studies to become a pillar in Olympic television broadcasting.

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Mary Lou Retton's Marriage and Daughters

After marrying Shannon Kelley, who played quarterback for the Longhorns at the University of Texas, in 1990, the couple welcomed four daughters together — Shayla, McKenna, Skyla and their youngest, Emma, who competed in gymnastics at the University of Arkansas, according to Biography.

Though the couple remained together since 1990, Retton and Kelley divorced after 27 years of marriage. Retton revealed to People in 2018 that, despite the separation being “something that had really needed to happen for a long time,” the former couple remain on amicable terms.  

Mary Lou Retton's Recent Illness

Mary Lou Retton on the red carpet for a super bowl party event in 2017

Symbolic of her indomitable spirit and intrinsic resilience, Mary Lou Retton has battled and overcome multiple, significant health issues in her lifetime, ranging from a knee injury that nearly derailed her legendary Olympic run in Los Angeles to fighting through hip dysplasia as a young mother. Still, neither of those compared to the rare form of life-threatening pneumonia that landed her in a Houston ICU for several days in 2023. Without health insurance to cover the mounting costs of her medical care, Retton found strength in the extraordinary kindness of fans who contributed to a crowd-funding campaign on Spotfund, a platform that her family used to help mitigate the out-of-pocket costs for the gold medalist.

“I’m beyond blessed to have the opportunity to make this statement,” Retton posted on Instagram in October. “I am overwhelmed with all the love and support from the world as I fight. I am forever grateful to you all!”

In a subsequent social media post, Retton gave an emotional update on her arduous journey to recovery just before Thanksgiving, highlighting the crucial role her daughters played and what she’s thankful for the most.

“As we gather to celebrate this Thanksgiving, my heart is overflowing with profound gratitude,” wrote Retton on Instagram. “I want to express how truly blessed and thankful I am to be slowly improving and to be home with my girls, especially after my time in the hospital.”

“The love and support of my four amazing daughters have been a source of strength and inspiration throughout my journey,” she added. “Their presence in my life is a testament to the incredible bonds of family.”

In January, she revealed to TODAY's Hoda Kotb that she was taken to the hospital after a neighbor found her unconscious at her home. After many days in the hospital, Retton's family worried she might not pull through. "They were saying their goodbyes to me," Retton said of her daughters.

Now discharged after a month in the hospital, Retton is recovering from her illness and plans to live life to the fullest, telling Kotb, "I have so much to look forward to. I'm a fighter."

To see how Team USA performs at the 2024 Olympics, tune in to Peacock and NBC beginning July 26.

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