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Was Mary Lou Retton a Pioneer in Gymnastics?
(56 votes, average 3.38 out of 5)

IG Online guest columnist Ward Black takes issue with Mary Lou Retton's recent self-proclamation that she is a pioneer in American gymnastics.

The 2009 American Cup was, more or less, predictable: American women Jordyn Wieber and Bridget Sloan easily went 1-2, leading the field by 3 points, and the inconsistency of the U.S. men allowed Germany's Fabian Hambüchen to win the all around.

Mary Lou Retton in 1984

NBC's commercial-cluttered two-hour live broadcast allowed plenty of time to go get snacks and make sandwiches between routines.

During one such competition break I almost pulled a Mama Cass and choked on my chicken and pepper-jack cheese sandwich when I heard Mary Lou Retton declare herself a "pioneer" in American gymnastics.

At first, I thought I was just not paying close attention, and that I had misunderstood what Retton had said. Maybe ... Retton was explaining to NBC interviewer Andrea Joyce that she was scheduled for a New Braunfels, Texas, summer stock revival production of "Little House on the Prairie," and she was playing a pioneer from the old American West.

To be sure, Retton is many things; pick any category from A to Mary Lou: athlete, Hall of Fame gymnast, champion, Olympian, wife, mother, public speaker, commercial pitch woman, PBS children's show creator and Sports Illustrated 1984 Sportswoman of the Year, as well as, many, many other public positions, accomplishments, awards and charity work.

Gymnastics pioneer — no.

In fairness to Retton, she also told Joyce that her 1984 Olympic all-around victory "helped open the door" to the future (and current) success of the U.S. women's national team and program ... Which is 100 percent absolutely correct.

However, Retton grossly overstates her self importance claiming to be a "pioneer." Why? Because, to me, that is a very public and ignorant statement which is a slap in the face to our true pioneers of American gymnastics.

I think Retton just misspoke ... And given that, let us clarify some of those people, and their gymnastics accomplishments, who helped to build that yellow brick road of gold which Retton walked on to help bank her lifetime of endorsement monies.

An old coach of mine used to declare the old phrase — "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." And that is Retton. Retton was a superbly prepared gymnast by two of the world's best coaches — the Karolyis — entering the 1984 boycotted Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games. That's all. She hit. She won.

Bill "The Chief" Roetzheim started a men's gymnastics program at Proviso East High School in the Chicago ghetto suburb of Maywood. The Chief trained international competitors. Have you been to Maywood? The Chief is a pioneer.

Glenn Sundby started International Gymnast magazine more than 50 years ago. George Nissen's manufacturing company helped evolve the safety of gymnastics mats, equipment and trampolines. Charlie Pond built pits into his University of Illinois gym in the 1950s and patented the Pond Twisting Belt. These men are pioneers.

Vannie Edwards at Centenary College and Herb Vogel at Southern Illinois University began some of the first college women's gymnastics programs in the old AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women which preceded todays NCAA). They are pioneers.

The list of pioneers is our early list of the American Gymnastics Hall of Fame. And these folks would point to those who came before them. Those gymnasts from Turners and Sokol in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

These people built the sport from scratch here in America. The women trained on Medart uneven bars when the rails were 100 percent hard wood and oval shaped. The men competed floor exercise and tumbled on the hard wood of a basketball floor. They all landed on horsehair and canvas mats.

These gymnasts are true pioneers.

Basketball superstar Lebron James is only 24 years old, yet he is heralded for his dedication to learn, expound and appreciate the accurate history of his sport, especially the history of the NBA.

Mary Lou may wish to take note, and adjust her choice of vocabulary.

Freelance writer Ward Black, a former gymnast for the University of Michigan, lives in Las Vegas.
Comments (10)add comment
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
This seems a bit vindictive and out of place, Low-rated comment [Show]

Frank Hui said:

Frank Hui
Taken in perspective
Actually I dont feel Mr Black's article is as vindicative as it may appear to be. Yes parts of the article is a little harsh but he fully acknowledges Retton's achievements and her importance to USA gymnastics and he wrote he believes she simply misspoke.

But he does make a valid point. An inspiration definitely, even a hero, but Retton was no pioneer. As talented an athlete as she was who was capable of beating the soviets and romanians, she only competed in 1 major international gymnastics competition in her whole life-granted it was the one that counted, but it was still a boycotted event. The US program for both the men and women had become respected by then even if they were not perceived as heavy gold medal favorites. Women like Cathy Rigby and Marcia Fredricks, even Kathy Johnson, were the real pioneers.
February 24, 2009
Votes: +18

gymn9610 said:

First Last
I think this article is spot on. Mary Lou was a good athlete and role model, but this was not the first interview in which she claims to have been the "pioneer" of greatness for USA Gymnastics. Like others have mentioned, she won in a boycotted Olympics, which almost certainly would not have happened had the Soviets competed in LA. I'm not trying to pick on Mary Lou, as she has been a role model to many generations of gymnasts, but I think she gives herself more credit than she deserves. I don't have an Olympic gold medal, so I can't speak on the day-to-day sacrifices it takes to get to that level. However, I think Mary Lou needs to realize that there were many outstanding athletes before her (Rigby, Kathy Johnson), after her (Miller, Dawes, Moceanu, Patterson, Liukin, Shawn Johnson), and in the future, all of whom deserve the spotlight as well. Just because she was the first American gymnast to receive worldwide attention doesn't mean that there weren't great champions before her.
February 24, 2009
Votes: +9

LadyJ said:

I'm quite sure ML realizes the sacrifices of those who came before. Yes, the Soviets boycotted, but she still beat gymnasts from Romania, China, etc., who were also powerhouses.
February 24, 2009
Votes: +2

Miss D said:

Although this article has very good information about very important people that have "pioneered" their own mark on gymnastics history. But I will have to disagree with Mr. Ward's remarks for trying to take away what Mary Lou did in 1984. She put gymnastics on the map for the United States the same way Nadia did for Romania. Yes, it was a boycotted Olympics, but that should not make her accomplishement any less important. Is it her fault the media made her into the Olympic Hero? No. She had an opportunity to really shine and she did. I grew up wanting to be Mary Lou. Because of her I started gymnastics. Ask any gymnast of the slightly older generation and I'll bet they all wanted to be Mary Lou. She made gymnastics popular in her time. Why Mr. Ward are you trying to extinguish her torch? Sounds like you have some sort of resentment toward her.
February 25, 2009
Votes: +2
..., Low-rated comment [Show]

Craig Williams said:

Craig Williams
I think the criticisms of Retton's statements about herself are spot on. In all of the years we've happened to come by Retton's remarks about herself and gymnastics, it's clear that everything she says is geared to aggrandize her own legacy and importance. It's annoying. Former teammates of hers have said in interviews that she was far too eager to believe that she was the best gymnast in the world even though she had never competed at a fully-attended major event such as a World Championships. Mary Lou Retton is a self-obsessed person. Even in 2006 when saying that she felt Natasha Kelley deserved to win the VISA Championships, her ultimate reason why was that she felt that Natasha Kelley was so much like her out there. "ME" is that woman's favorite word. Oh, that and "MOM" because lets not forget that all of those kids she's had makes her so much better than everyone else, too.
February 25, 2009
Votes: -5

Laura S said:

Laura S
This article strikes me as blatantly bitter about those who are not in IG's sacred inner circle. With the magazine's reputation for promoting those who are friendly to the management, the reader gets the distinct impression that Mary Lou must not be in IG's / Paul Ziert's good graces.

With so many problems in gymnastics today, it seems shameful that IG needs to attack one of the sport's popular heroes on the basis of semantics. Is she a pioneer? Sure, that's debateable. But IG also says some extremely debateable things about those it wishes to promote for any given Hall of Fame boondoggle / commomerative event / publicity opportunity. The real reason for highlighting Mary Lou's choice of words seems more about being bitter that she got air time when Nadia got none.
February 25, 2009
Votes: +4

And, I was there! said:

Mary Lou Retton & Bela Karolyi
OK, please remember that Mary Lou beat the "Current World Champion" at the time and much deserves everything that she has gotten; title, notariety, awards, and so on. That is one of the reasons I am glad to be out of the sport now. Prior to the Karolyis being here, USA Gymnastics was nothing... The coaches were always bickering about this and that, and it was always just senseless! I coached at Karolyis during the glory years and was it ever so exciting for USA Gymnastics to be hitting the world scene just because of the personality of Bela Karolyi and Mary Lou Retton and what they brought to USA Gymnastics internationally.

Now that I am not involved in the sport anymore, it just seems such a waste of time to not give credit where credit is due. If the gymnasts prior to Mary Lou, and those who followed, would have had such a personality as one Bela Karolyi, then perhaps they could have made, or could still make their mark on the world of gymnastics and the general public. Get a sports agent that can help you and forget about all this hear say...

To this day, I have all the respect for Bela Karolyi and Mary Lou Retton for also having a great sports agent to help guide them to international fame together.

It seems to me that USA Gymnastics community has always been one of who is in the inner circle, click if you will, and even when Bela's kids were kicking butt, "they" were always in the back ground with the jealousy chatter... What is being done now to promote the sport and by whom? Yes, Bela and Marta are still at the helm... So, do you hire someone with a marketable personality to take over?

I remember after Mary Lou won, everyone prospered for years to follow. Yes indeed, there were those "pioneers" that noone outside of the sport had ever heard of, nor even cared about. People grew to love the sport because of Mary Lou Retton's "true" personality. I believe what you saw in Mary Lou is what you got. There have been a couple of Olympic Champions since Mary Lou, but where are they now as far as general marketability? Shawn Johnson was so smart!!! She played the media ever so well with Mary Lou & Bela playing right along beside her. Look where she is now! So get off of Mary Lou's coat tails and go Hollywood instead of all this bashing!

October 15, 2009 | url
Votes: -4

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