PITTSBURGH – Simone Biles wrapped up her second consecutive U.S. all-around title Saturday night. A few hours earlier she bagged quite the endorsement.
“She may be the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen in my life, honestly,” Mary Lou Retton said. “And I don’t think she’s tapped into what she can really do.
“I think she’s unbeatable.”
Retton, whose 1984 Olympic all-around gold medal was the first Olympic all-around gymnastics medal for a U.S. woman, said the 17-year-old Biles, a 4-foot-9 force of power and energy, has a style unlike any other gymnast.
“She’s Simone,” Retton said of the defending world all-around champion. “She is in her own category.”
Retton is in Pittsburgh for the P&G Gymnastics Championships, where her 1984 teammates were recognized in front of 12,424 fans Saturday night to mark the 30th anniversary of their Olympic silver medal.
Though the 46-year-old Retton looks like she could still score another perfect 10, the Houston resident today is content being a gymnastics mom. Three of her four daughters are competitive gymnasts, with oldest daughter, Shayla, 19, a sophomore-to-be for Baylor’s acrobatics and tumbling team, and second oldest, McKenna, 17, a Level 10 who came close to qualifying for this weekend’s national championships.
No matter that mom is the pioneer for U.S. women’s gymnastics, though, Retton — whose family goes by the last name of her husband, Shannon Kelley — said she rarely plays the role of Coach Retton.
“I’m literally mom,” she said. “I have the meals ready and I’m there for support. Very rarely will she (McKenna) come home and show me her phone: ‘Mom I’m having problems with this. What do you say?’ And then I’ll offer.
“A lot of times they’re like, ‘We don’t do it that way anymore, Mom.’”
The Olympic champion said she is still recognized, though, most often by other gymnastics moms — “That’s my generation,” she said — though some young gymnasts notice Retton, too, sometimes because they’ve done school reports on the starlet of the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games.
Retton’s legacy isn’t lost on many at the P&G Championships and surrounding events, though. When the 1984 men’s and women’s teams were introduced to the crowd at Consol Energy Center Saturday, Retton received an ovation louder (and lower pitched) than that of the night’s two stars, Biles and 2012 Olympian Kyla Ross, in pre-meet introductions.
The recognition is for good reason.
As a team, the 1984 women broke through on home soil to claim a silver medal, the first gymnastics team medal in U.S. women’s history. Americans women also won six individual event medals, including Julianne McNamara’s tie for first on uneven bars.
“USA Gymnastics is a dynasty these days, and I think that we kind of were the pioneers that opened that up,” Retton said. “You don’t have to be a Russian or a Romanian or an Eastern Bloc country. You can be born in this country, coached in this country and still be champion.”
On an individual level, Retton, then a 17-year-old powder keg from West Virginia, also ushered in a new era in gymnastics, one in which women no longer had to possess the delicate, slender frame epitomized by Nadia Comaneci.
Today’s U.S. women’s national teams are a living example of both legacies. U.S. women have won the past three Olympic all-around gold medals, the U.S. team won gold in 2012, and several of the country’s iconic gymnasts in recent years fit Retton’s muscular, powerful model — names like Biles, Shawn Johnson, Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman.
“Those girls are strong and powerful,” Retton said. “I get goose bumps when I say it, because I was told 30 years ago, ‘You don’t have the body for it; you’re not skinny enough for gymnastics; you’re not pretty enough,’ and I didn’t listen to them because I loved it and I wanted to show them that I could do it.”
Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.