Mary Lou Retton has been a household word for years now, and she's still only 24.
The kid from West Virginia who bounced into our consciousness in 1984 to become the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics now sells fitness for the president of the United States. She tries to motivate others with a "take-risks" talk that she delivers dozens of times a year to adults and youngsters and is, of course, still "the Revco girl."
"I'm lucky that I've made the transition" from Olympic gymnast to salesperson extraordinaire, she said while in Baltimore yesterday to kick off ticket sales for the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials, to be held here in June. "I think and I hope people are bringing me in because of my message," which she characterizes as "motivational."
"I tell my story. I had knee surgery six weeks before the Olympics. That was a nightmare. Then, I say 'believe in yourself, you've got to take chances, you've got to be resilient.'
. . . If I'd have quit gymnastics every time I fell off a beam, I never would have made it to the Olympics," said Ms. Retton, perky even during a pre-breakfast interview.
To youngsters who aspire to Olympic greatness, her advice is "work hard, make sacrifices, be dedicated. The harder you work, the luckier you get."
To parents who think their children may be athletically gifted, she issued a caution: "Be supportive, but don't be pushy. Listen to your child. If they want to do it, take them, pick them up; be a gym mom."
Parental pressure, however, doesn't make an Olympic athlete: "No one could have made me go to the gym," she said of her years of training before the Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Ms. Retton has high hopes for American success in this summer's Olympics in Barcelona. "The gymnasts are the strongest team we've ever sent," she believes.
The leading U.S. female gymnast, Kim Zmeskal, who also holds the No. 1 world ranking and is favored by many to take a gold medal this summer, has also trained under Ms. Retton's coach, Bela Karolyi, for years. When Ms. Retton was preparing for the 1984 Olympics, this year's contender was in the "tiny tots team," she said. "Sure enough, it's her time."
Ms. Zmeskal and 49 other gymnasts will compete at the Baltimore Arena June 6 to 13 to represent the United States at the Summer Games. Six men and six women, plus four alternates, will be chosen from the finals competition.
"I think we'll see a lot of medals," Ms. Retton said of the overall competition, conceding, however, that Americans are too medal conscious. "We, as a nation, concentrate on what color the medal is. Making the Olympics is a feat in itself."
Having many feats to her credit, Ms. Retton takes on one more challenge: how to get American children to exercise. "Kids are unfit today; it's a major problem," she said. As a just-appointed special adviser on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, she will be developing fitness programs that schools and recreation centers can use to get, and keep, kids moving.
Although she remembers fondly being a tomboy who played outdoors for hours with her older brothers back in West Virginia, she said the programs she'll be working on will probably be much more organized -- with rules, proper warm-ups and supervision.
"It's gotta be fun, though. They are not going to do it if it isn't fun," says Ms. Retton.
Poor nutrition adds to youngsters' lack of fitness, she adds. And this she blames on parents who are too busy to cook and serve, instead, fast food. "I tell the parents to make a change or sacrifice to get home and prepare a meal," she says.
When she's home in Houston, with her husband of one year, Shannon Kelley, she enjoys cooking healthy meals and working out at least an hour and a half every day. "I would feel guilty if I didn't," she said.
But when she's traveling -- 12 to 15 days a month -- it's more difficult to maintain her exercise and nutrition regimen. "I pack a lot of fruit and my rice cakes and I don't eat the plane food, except salads," she said. "I'm 4 feet 9, and a few pounds is a lot for me."