January 19, 2000

Mary Lou Retton:
Role model, mother, Baptist

___By Christin Ditchfield
___Crosswalk.com News Service
___HOUSTON (BP)--It was one of the greatest moments in Olympic history. For nine years, young Mary Lou Retton had worked for this alone. She needed a 9.95 to tie for the individual all-around gymnastics title at the 1984 Olympics. 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.
___Spectators in Los Angeles 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 vaulted her way to Olympic superstardom, earning a perfect a 10. The flawless vault propelled Retton 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, 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 international magazines. She appeared on TV almost non-stop. Retton was the first female athlete pictured on a Wheaties cereal box. She received numerous awards and accolades. Fan letters poured in.
___For some athletes, Olympic glory fades quickly. They enjoy the quick glare of the spotlight. Then the crowds go away, reporters stop calling and they wander back into anonymity.
___But for Retton, the spotlight never has faded. Fifteen years after her Olympic triumph, she remains one of the most popular and widely recognized athletes in the world.
___Retton was 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.
___Her dynamic style rocked the gymnastics world. In many ways, she embodied the American dream in 1984. From humble beginnings, she rose 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 athletics. During the past three Olympics, she worked as a commentator for NBC. In the 1992 and 1996 games, she wrote a column for USA Today and hosted an Olympic highlights television show. She also has 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. She occasionally guest stars on TV shows and movies.
___Now 31, Retton is happily married and living in Houston with her husband, Shannon Kelley, and their girls, Shayla and McKenna. She's 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 recently, she's found herself speaking out about something much more personal.
___"I'm a Christian," she 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 in Houston and Pastor Ed Young.
___Retton admits she hasn't discussed her faith in public very often.
___"I've never been an 'in-your-face' type of person," she explains. "I've always been 'sweet Mary Lou.' For years, I felt 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."
___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 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, volunteer work and commercial shoots with 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. "But my family is my first priority. My No. 1 job is to be a wife and mother. So when it comes to my schedule, I 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."
___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, 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 asks. "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."


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