Mary Lou Retton is a goal-setter. She had to be in order to bring home five Olympic medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics. At the age of 16, she became the first American woman to win an all-around gold medal in gymnastics and was the first female athlete featured on the Wheaties cereal box.
She made it her goal to break down barriers and set records by working hard and daring to strive for accomplishments that seemed almost impossible.
“Everyone in the room this morning has a dream, has a goal, and wants to make that real,” Retton said in her keynote talk at the REALTOR® Broker Summit in Denver in June. “Taking risks and meeting challenges head-on is sometimes the only way to make your dreams come true.”
Retton grew up in the coal-mining town of Fairmont, W.V. She was always the kid tumbling around in the yard and jumping on her parents’ bed. She realized her life’s calling at the age of 8, when she watched Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci compete in the 1976 Summer Olympics.
Her coach in those early days would say, “Mary Lou is not quite a butterfly,” she recalled. Retton recognized that her strength was not grace but power — and she learned how to use that to her advantage.
Romanian coach Bela Károlyi saw Retton compete at an event in Reno, Nev., and invited her to train with him in Houston. At the age of 14, Retton left home, moved to Houston, and lived with a host family in order to train with the best in the sport. Today, as a mother of four daughters aged 14 to 21, she realizes the magnitude of that step.
“I couldn’t live my life thinking ‘what if,’” she said.
In 1983, she was an alternate at the American Cup, and when a teammate pulled a muscle the night before, Retton was called up. “I had nothing to lose,” she said, so she dug in and ended up beating the Russian World Cup champion. “Preparation gives you confidence to open that door and barrel through.”
That win helped propel her through several more big wins and eventually place first at the 1984 Olympic Trials. Confidence also helped her overcome a severe knee injury she suffered during a floor routine just a few weeks before the games.
“Don’t let other people put limits on you,” Retton said. “If you have big plans and big dreams, and if you believe with a passion you can do it, you can.”
Five weeks after knee surgery, Retton scored perfect 10s on her floor routine and twice on the vault to become the all-around gold medalist, making Olympic history.
“We spend most of our lives living in that comfort zone because it’s safe and easy,” she said. “But sometimes to get that edge on the competition — and you guys understand because you work in a highly competitive industry — you have to go outside your comfort zone.”