Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Italian American Heritage Month: Mary Lou Retton

Mary Lou (Rotunda) Retton

Gymnast Mary-Lou Retton scooped five medals at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, more than any other athlete. Her success on home soil transformed her into a true American sporting icon and  her gold medal win was historic as Retton was the first American woman to win the all-around gold medal in Olympic gymnastics. Retton was born in Fairmont, West Virginia.  The original family name was "Rotunda." Her father, Ronnie, operated a coal-industry transportation equipment business.

Retton was inspired by her East European idol, Romanian prodigy Nadia Comaneci, and set her mind on becoming a gymnastics champion. Later moved to Houston to train with Bela and Marta Karolyi, Comaneci’s former coaches, and under their strict guidance, the talented youngster rose to national and then international prominence in the early 1980s.After dominating the US Olympic artistic gymnastics trials, Retton damaged her knee while rehearsing a floor routine and had to undergo an urgent operation. Just five weeks remained before the start of Los Angeles 1984, but somehow she managed to recover in time. In front of an enthralled crowd in the University of California’s Pauley Pavilion, Retton locked horns with Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo in the individual all-round competition. Recording perfect 10s on the floor and vault, she pipped her rival to the title by 0.05 points.  Not satisfied with this historic triumph, she went on to secure silver in the vault, bronze in the uneven bars and the floor, and another silver in the team event. Having won more medals than any other participant at the 1984 Games, she was named Sportswoman of the Year and Amateur Athlete of the Year by the American press.

Retton enjoyed a victorious swansong, being crowned US champion in 1985. After she retired, a park and a street in her home town were named after her. She went on to work in television, advertised a well-known brand of breakfast cereal, and in 1997 was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Prior to that, almost a decade after her Olympic success, a survey carried out by the Associated Press confirmed Retton as the joint most popular sporting figure in the USA, alongside figure skater Dorothy Hamill, who won a gold medal at the 1976 Games.

Part of a month long series spotlighting a different accomplished Italian American every day during Italian American Heritage Month.

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