Mary Lou Retton knows a thing or two about tough competition. After all, the former gymnast had once battled for the gold medal in the individual all-around competition at the Olympic Games. And Retton squeaked by her nearest competitor by a mere 0.05 points to nab the gold medal – the first time an American woman had ever done so.
But in the spring of 2019 Retton’s daughter was the one in the spotlight, as 22-year-old McKenna Kelley took to the mat at the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships. And as McKenna’s routine began, the announcer reminded viewers that this would be her final time competing with the Louisiana State University team before she graduated.
Yet while the stakes were high for McKenna, none of the pressure seemed to show on the gymnast’s face. In fact, she actually displayed a smile as she embarked on her floor exercise. And what happened next left everyone stunned. One member of the audience, in particular, had been in a very similar position 35 years prior.
But let’s trace this flair for gymnastics back to the beginning. Retton herself had grown up in Fairmont, West Virginia, and it was here that the future gold medalist had an epiphany. When Retton was eight years old, you see, she witnessed the 1976 Summer Olympics on TV. In particular, she watched Romanian gymnast Nadia Com?neci outperform her competitors to become the first in her discipline to ever receive a flawless mark in the history of the Games. And Com?neci’s momentous win duly inspired Retton to sign up for gymnastics lessons.
In time, too, Retton dropped out of her high school in Fairmont and moved to Houston, Texas, where Com?neci’s trainers, Béla and Márta Károlyi, had set up shop. And under the Károlyi coaching duo, Retton quickly proved her worth by earning gold at the American Cup and silver at the U.S. Nationals in 1983.
Then Retton had knee surgery just five weeks before the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles – but, amazingly, that didn’t stop her from competing. Instead, she found herself battling for first place in the women’s all-around contest. And her main opponent was Ecaterina Szabo – a Romanian gymnast who was participating despite the Soviet Bloc’s snub of the games that year.
After two events in the all-around competition, then, Retton sat into second position, where she trailed Szabo by a mere 0.15 points. Nevertheless, the American gymnast had a few further tricks up her sleeve. And she wowed the judges in both the floor and vault events, earning flawless scores in spite of her knee. As a result, Retton took the gold by a margin of 0.05 points, making her the first person from the U.S. to ever claim the top spot.
In fact, Retton completed the games with five medals: the all-around gold, two silvers from the team competition and the vault and a pair of bronzes in floor and uneven bars. Her success earned her a new nickname, too: “America’s sweetheart.” But regardless of her achievements, Retton decided to retire from her sport only two years after her Olympic triumph.
Then, nearly a decade later, Retton started a family with her husband at the time, former University of Texas quarterback Shannon Kelley. And between 1995 and 2002 the couple welcomed four girls into the world: Shayla, McKenna, Skyla and Emma. Like their talented mom, all of the Kelley daughters found themselves interested in gymnastics in some way, too.
But seemingly Retton was not a pushy parent, as McKenna would tell ESPN in 2016 that she had felt little pressure to follow in her mother’s medal-winning footsteps. “I feel like people have a hard time believing that,” she added. “You see Dance Moms, and you see how crazy those moms are, and you just assume that an Olympic champion would want her child to be like that.”
Nevertheless, the decision to get her daughters into gymnastics was a simple one for Retton. “Whether they stuck with it or not, gymnastics is a great base for any athletic activity,” she explained to ESPN. And it should be noted that the kids did try out other sports, such as softball, tee-ball and basketball, while they grew up.
However, all four Kelley girls came back to gymnastics – minus any pressure from mom. Retton revealed during a May 2019 appearance on Today, “I put my four daughters into a sport that I love. It’s woven into every fabric of my being. We’re a gymnastics family. Three stuck with it, [while] one was a cheerleader. Her path was different than mine, and I’m so proud of everything.”
In McKenna’s case, Retton introduced her daughter to the sport in a fun way, with the pair attending mother-and-child lessons together when McKenna was only two years old. And almost from the jump, Retton claimed, the girl had showed promise. “McKenna was very, very bouncy and very strong-willed,” Retton remarked to ESPN.
“[McKenna] was an adorable little child, always flipping around [and] following her older sister, who was also in gymnastics,” Retton went on. “She could do it all – pull-ups, sit-ups, the rope climb. She had no idea how strong she was.” And as she got older, McKenna continued to show how much of her mother’s talent she had inherited.
Yet McKenna didn’t begin to consider entering the elite level of gymnastics until she had turned 17 – as old as Retton was when she retired. Elite gymnasts represent the top tier of American talent, mind you. And those who reach that level can compete to join the women’s national team, after which they can compete all over the world.
“Being an elite athlete was always something I wanted to do,” McKenna said to ESPN in 2016. “Growing up with my mom going to all these different events, I’ve always been able to see it firsthand – the national team and what it takes. Just being on that level was always an aspiration of mine.”
And yet the gold medalist’s daughter said that she hadn’t spent much time dreaming about her own chance at Olympic glory. “It wasn’t something I was necessarily turned off by, but because I was a part of it already, I never really thought about it,” McKenna admitted. For a while, though, it appeared that she may yet have a shot at the prestigious competition.
In fact, McKenna ended up training under the same coaches with whom her mother had worked: the Karolyis. And as such, Retton could relate to the rigorous regimen that her daughter would take on. “I trained with the Karolyis for four and a half years, and it was intense every single minute,” she recalled to ESPN.
Furthermore, such intensity requires a person to be fully dedicated as a gymnast. “You’ve got to live it, you’ve got to sleep it, you’ve got to eat it [and] you’ve got to think it,” Retton said. “And there’s no break from it. ‘That’s what the elite world is,’ I told [McKenna], ‘but I’ll support whatever you want to do.’”
But most of all, Retton didn’t wish for McKenna to have any regrets about her gymnastics career had she decided not to pursue the discipline at the highest level. “I didn’t want [McKenna] to wake up when she was… my age and say, ‘Gosh, I wonder what it would have been like to try?’” the Olympian added.
In 2015, though, it seemed that McKenna’s body had made the decision for her, as she had stress fractures in her legs that had prevented her from competing in that year’s Pan American Games. Rather than trying for the Olympics, then, the elite gymnast decided to switch gears and pursue a collegiate career.
And owing to the “warmth and love” of the team and coaches at Louisiana State University, McKenna found it easy to choose where to study. Following her injuries and the tough training with the Karolyis, this caring approach was exactly what she needed, too. In fact, just six weeks into her time at LSU, McKenna reportedly called Retton to proclaim, “Gymnastics is fun again!”
McKenna also went on to become a force to be reckoned with on the LSU gymnastics team – especially in the floor exercise. In her freshman season, for example, she scored a stunning 9.925 in the event at the SEC Championship. The team went on to obtain second place at the nationals, achieving their highest-ever finish.
McKenna nevertheless beat her initial records in her sophomore season, hitting a career-high 9.975 on the floor in a meet with George Washington and Iowa. That year, she also helped LSU to win the SEC Championship, made her way onto the academic honor roll and was named as a First-Team All American.
When McKenna injured her Achilles tendon, however, she was taken out of her high-achieving rhythm and left unable to participate in gymnastics for the entirety of the season. But when she came back for her final year on the LSU team, she was healed and ready to go. And as always, her biggest fan watched her comeback from the sidelines.
As a gymnast herself, Retton admitted that observing McKenna and the rest of her children competing made her nervous. And in conversation with ESPN, the self-described “crazy loud obnoxious mom” went on to detail her committed cheering style. “I commentate to myself,” she explained. “Drive your heels! Look for your landing! Stick! All the same things I told myself when I was competing.”
Yet although Retton has claimed that her cheers help calm her during her daughters’ tense meets, she has also promised her second-oldest that she’d try toning down the noise. “I tell her every season, ‘McKenna, I’m really gonna do it this season. I’m gonna sit down like most of the other parents and just clap when you go and be quiet and civilized.’ And I just can’t help myself!” Retton added.
But at the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships – the last competition of McKenna’s collegiate career – both the athlete and her famous mother grabbed attention. On that occasion, McKenna wowed with her stunning performance on the floor, while Retton made her own impression in the crowd thanks to her emotional reaction.
Adding to the drama, McKenna’s routine on the floor would be the last of the event, which took place on April 20, 2019, in Fort Worth, Texas. The determined gymnast thus began the routine with her forearms covering her face, although she pulled them away to reveal a smile as soon as the music started.
With that determined start, McKenna flipped her way through a routine that encompassed a trio of tough passes. On the floor, she went from a double layout to a second front layout-front full combination before, finally, a double backflip – and she landed each with ease. “She wants to go out with a big one!” the commentator stated.
And after landing her last two flips – and dancing it out for the last few seconds of her routine – McKenna stood to celebrate her nearly flawless floor routine. She rose up and blew a huge kiss to the section of LSU supporters in the crowd. Then the cameras zoomed in on her proud mom.
Along with the rest of the onlookers, Retton had both hands in the air, flashing all ten of her fingers and chanting the same number over and over. It seems that they all believed McKenna’s performance had warranted a perfect score. As soon as the cheer ended, however, the emotion of the occasion seemed to hit the Olympic gold medalist.
Yes, the camera caught Retton tearing up and covering her mouth as she reveled in McKenna’s incredible performance. The proud mother then kissed her hands and pointed them toward the mat where her daughter was standing. And through her own tears, McKenna appeared to offer the same gesture back to her mom.
Ultimately, the judges awarded McKenna with a 9.95 – a mark that helped LSU secure its second-place finish in the NCAA Championships. Clearly, then, the gymnast’s mother wasn’t the only viewer impressed with the performance. And McKenna’s coach, D-D Breaux, knew how much the athlete had needed to overcome in order to earn her near-perfect score.
“I really commend her,” Breaux told The Times-Picayune in April 2019. “She’s worked really hard to come back from a serious injury… She has done an amazing job.” And for this and other reasons, Retton said on Today that she hoped her daughter would cherish the last moments of her final meet.
“My last thought to [McKenna] was, ‘Remember this.’ My words were, ‘Remember this, baby girl. This is your last routine.’ And the whole place… it was just such a moment,” Retton said on the show. What’s more, it seemed as though McKenna took her sage advice, as the gymnast later recalled the event to be “picture perfect.”
After her big competition had been completed, however, McKenna still had one final decision to make. Technically, as she’d missed all of her junior season, she could return and compete with LSU for one more year. Yet that wasn’t to be; while on Today, you see, McKenna announced that she had opted to graduate instead.
“That really was my final routine,” McKenna said of her stunning floor performance. She explained, too, that she had felt “so at peace” with the decision to end an experience she described as “so special.” Concluding, she added, “I don’t think another year of gymnastics could give me anything I needed more.”
And on Instagram, McKenna shared what she hoped to do now that her gymnastics career had come to a storybook finish. “Inspiring others is the true passion of my heart,” she revealed in an April 2019 post. “I am following my dreams of being a motivational speaker and helping others to be the best version of themselves.”
Plus, of course, there’ll likely be someone along the way to cheer McKenna on. Speaking of Retton’s enduring support, McKenna told ESPN, “It’s so rewarding to look up and see the pride [my parents] have. It’s really touching that I can do what I love to do, and they’re there supporting me.”