Retton Displays Her Mettle as a Celebrity : Gold Medal-Winning Gymnast With Perfect-10 Smile Returns to Los Angeles to Promote Book

Times Staff Writer

There were no flowing gowns and sparkly crowns, no spotlights, no tunes by Bert Parks. But it was clear--Miss America was back in town. Miss America the Athlete, that is. Mary Lou Retton.

The little gymnast from West Virginia who won Americans’ hearts with her perfect gold medal vaults and her perfect-10 smile a year and a half ago in the 1984 Olympics returned to Los Angeles last weekend to promote her new book.

It’s called “Mary Lou, Creating an Olympic Champion,” (McGraw-Hill, $16.95). It is the story of Retton and her coach, Bela Karolyi, written with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Powers.


Judging by reports from other cities across the country where she appeared, and from the crowds she drew at bookstores in Beverly Hills and Torrance, Retton has lost none of her momentum as America’s 94-pound sweetheart. She’s still packing them in, and she’s still smiling.

Little wonder. Retton is the one U.S. Olympic athlete to reap super fame and super fortune since the Games. She is still bringing home the gold, in dollars, not medals. And lots of it.

“I don’t know if I’m a millionaire,” Retton said. “I don’t know the figures on it. All the money goes to a trust fund set up with the U.S. Gymnastics Federation so I can maintain my amateur status. I get living expenses and it pays for my training.”

‘We Are Very Particular’

Retton said that she, coach Karolyi and her agent, John Traetta, a former gymnast, are careful about accepting too many product endorsements. “We are very particular,” she said. “We have to watch out for overexposure.”

In the summer of ‘84, at age 16, Mary Lou Retton became the first American woman ever to win a gold medal in gymnastics, and instantly was turned into the most marketable product to come out of the Los Angeles Games.

If you think pin-trading and selling is still popular, you haven’t seen a Retton autograph session.


Today, she remains the single Olympic athlete from the United States team to be in overwhelming demand for product endorsements--hamburgers, shampoo, cereal and batteries, to name a few--lectures, political dinners, gymnastic exhibitions and autograph sessions.

An estimated 450 people showed up to greet Retton and Karolyi and get autographs at a Brooklyn shopping center, another 400 in Boston.

“It was the first time I’d been to Brooklyn,” said Retton, breaking into her famous smile. “It’s a whole world in itself over there. In Boston, there were a lot of loud kids.”

About 150 people came to the autograph session at Brentano’s bookstore in Beverly Hills on Friday; about 300 to the B. Dalton bookstore at Del Amo Fashion Square in Torrance on Saturday.

“This right hand is in shape,” Retton said afterward. She had one more stop in Chicago before returning home.

In Los Angeles, Retton fans lined up an hour or so early at both stores for the 4-foot, 9-inch gymnast’s appearance. In Beverly Hills, there were businessmen in conservative blue suits, men and women in jogging wear, teen-age boys, some with a single red rose, mothers with babies in strollers.


At both bookstores, there were lots of little girls in leotards who said they wanted to grow up to be like Mary Lou.

Wheaties Boxes

Some people brought photographs for Retton to autograph in addition to copies of her book. Others brought Wheaties boxes, hoping to get them signed. “I really do eat Wheaties,” Retton said, smiling again. “I grew up on them.”

Nearly everyone had brought a camera to snap pictures of Retton and Karolyi.

Fashion student Daryl Takafuji, 24, came to Brentano’s with a photograph his mother, Carol, had taken of Retton during the Olympics. The gymnast was pictured standing near a fence in the Olympic Village, trading pins with some other athletes.

“I promised my mother I would get her autograph,” Takafuji said. “I have two books, one for me, one for my mother. I have been waiting for this opportunity to come along, because I wanted to see Mary Lou in person.”

Two elderly women came up and kissed Retton on the cheek, one saying, “Mary Lou, you’re a doll.”

Nancy Brown Geiling of San Marino brought her high school annual to show to Retton. It was the 1955 Maple Leaves yearbook from Fairmont High School in West Virginia and contained senior class photos of Brown and Retton’s mother, Lois Jean Prozzillo Retton.


Retton confessed that she is a bit amazed at her continuing popularity.

“It’s been 1 1/2 years, and it’s even worse out in public now,” she said during lunch at the Beverly Wilshire on Friday before her autograph session at Brentano’s.

Retton lives in a security condominium in Houston now, with her 24-year-old brother, Ronnie, and still trains four to five hours a day at Karolyi’s gym there. She moved from her home in Fairmont to Houston three years ago to train with Karolyi, who defected from his native Romania in 1981.

Jump in Enrollment

Since the ’84 Olympics, Karolyi, too, has been catapulted into the limelight. The enrollment at his gym is up to about 1,200 students now.

“We (he and his wife, Martha) started out in 1982 with 64 students,” Karolyi explained. “You can’t run a club with 64 kids. No people. No profit. When Mary Lou came, we were up to about 350. The growing situation comes with gymnastic results.

“When Mary Lou won the American Cup (in 1983), it hit like a bomb,” he continued. Then we went to the pre-Olympic games in Los Angeles and Mary Lou provided the biggest sensation. Then the greatest satisfaction was the Olympics with Mary Lou and Julianne McNamara (also a Karolyi student) winning the medals. Five for Mary Lou and Julianne, three. For me that’s winning eight medals. As a coach it was my greatest satisfaction.”

‘Mixed Feelings’

Karolyi said he was especially pleased to win the Olympic medals in Los Angeles, “because for me, this is a most controversial town. It gives me mixed feelings.”


He told how he and his wife came to Los Angeles in February of 1981 after defecting from Romania, where as a gymnastics coach he had discovered Olympian Nadia Comaneci.

“We had no money for food and no jobs,” he said. “I called all the gymnastic clubs and, no, they didn’t want me. They didn’t want any competition.”

After spending several months in Los Angeles where he cleaned restaurants and worked unloading ships at the docks in Long Beach, Karolyi landed a job as an assistant in the physical education department at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. From there, the Karolyis moved to Houston to be instructors at the gymnasium they now run.

As Karolyi spoke during lunch, a waiter came over to ask Retton for her autograph, holding out a piece of paper and a pen. “Can you autograph this for my daughter, Mary Ann?” he asked. “She’s almost the same height as you, and the same age.”

Bags of Fan Mail

Retton smiled, signed the paper, and began talking about her fan mail. She said she still gets bags full of it, “from 4-year-olds to 80-year-olds. From teen-age boys, I get marriage proposals and invitations to their proms. Some bring flowers (to autograph sessions). The lines are never ending.”

Retton just turned 17 in January, she said, and she’s not thinking about marriage yet.

She did admit, though, that she had been “seeing someone this summer.” The young man is Shannon Kelley, 19, a quarterback at Texas College.


“He is off at college now and we’re both very busy,” said Retton. “We talk on the phone a lot. I go up there and he comes down here when he can. He’s a serious athlete, too, and we understand the sacrifices and ups and downs. But he’s outgoing and funny and we go out to other sports activities. We go to amusement parks and play Putt-Putt golf.”

Retton’s plans for college are indefinite because of her busy gymnastics scheduled. She has a heavy exhibition schedule this fall, in various U.S. cities, and one appearance in Belgium. She and Karolyi soon will decide which international meets to go to next year. She hopes to compete in the 1988 Olympics in Korea, but will make no formal commitment right now.

“This book tour is the longest break I’ve had in training,” Retton said, explaining she was anxious to get back to Houston. “It’s (training) a lot of hard work, but a lot of hard work pays off. A lot of young girls will see what it takes in the book. As a kid, I had dreams, too. You set the goal and go for it. That’s what I tell the kids. You make your sacrifices, but in the end it’s worth it.”