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Laura Emily Dunn, ContributorDigital Comms, Content and Social Media Practitioner | Political Style blogger | digital democracy advocate | world traveller

Women in Business Q&A: Mary Lou Retton

04/09/2017 10:12 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2017

Mary Lou Retton catapulted to international fame by winning the All Around Gold Medal in women’s gymnastics at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, becoming the first American woman ever to win a gold medal in gymnastics. She also won silver medals for Team and Vault, and bronze medals for Uneven Bars and Floor Exercise. Her five medals were the most won by any athlete at the ’84 Olympics.

Other victories include being the only woman to win three American Cups (1983 85), the only American to win Japan’s prestigious Chunichi Cup (1983), two U.S. Gymnastics Federation American Classics (1983 84), and the All Around title at both the 1984 National Championships and Olympic Trials. Mary Lou retired from competitive gymnastics in 1986.

But even today, Mary Lou continues to touch the lives of millions. A national sports survey found she’s the most popular athlete in America. She travels the world as a “Fitness Ambassador,” promoting the benefits of proper nutrition and regular exercise.

This past year, Mary Lou Retton announced her partnership with Nature’s Bounty – one of the world’s leading and most trusted vitamin and supplement brands.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

It’s made me the leader I am today in several different ways. Growing up as an athlete in such a competitive space, you have to have confidence, be assertive and aggressive - in a good way. I’ve really carried those qualities over into my adult life as a business woman and as a mother. They’re qualities that are invaluable; I try to instill them in my children and the people I surround myself with.

I’ve also learned a lot from my coaches who are incredible mentors and trailblazers in the world of Gymnastics. They taught me to not be afraid of making changes or being different, both learnings I find essential to great leadership.

How has your previous employment experience aided your growth as a gymnast and mentor today? 

I’ve had so much growth, both in the lessons I learned as a sixteen-year-old athlete and now, as a businesswoman, professional speaker and brand ambassador. As a young athlete, I l learned the values of confidence and being assertive. Even so, it was a huge transition for me from athlete to businesswoman and mentor. As an athlete, I relied on my physical abilities and as a businesswoman, I rely on my communication abilities and personality. Both careers have provided so much growth, from learning how to overcome adversity and immense challenges, which led me to the Olympic podium, to being able to communicate and share my story today with hundreds and thousands of people. 

What have the highlights and challenges been during your career as a gymnast?

The biggest highlight was winning the Olympic gold, something I had dreamt about every night since I was seven years old. For me, it was the epitome of athletic success.

There were so many challenges I experienced at such a young age. From leaving home at the age of fourteen and having two very hard coaches, to undergoing knee surgery just six weeks before the Olympic Games. That experience was by far my greatest challenge with doctors repeatedly telling me I couldn’t compete. I remember thinking, “I can’t give up, I’ve made it this far.” That experience made me realize that you cannot let other people put limits on you. People all around me told me I couldn’t do it and to shoot for the next Olympics. I had to dig deep inside my soul to keep on going, but I decided I wasn’t going to let other people stop me from winning the gold.

As a businesswoman today, a huge highlight has been and continues to be every time I get up on a stage or am in front of a camera. As a public speaker for brands like Nature’s Bounty, I really hope to inspire and encourage people with my story, and having that kind of platform makes me feel very grateful and blessed.

On the flipside, a huge challenge has been the struggle of being a working businesswoman and a mom – it’s very difficult to balance both roles.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

My biggest piece of advice is to be whomever you want to be.

There are jobs and then there are careers. Don’t find a job - find a career in something that you’re really passionate about. I’ve been blessed to be in a sport that I love and that has become every fabric of my being. I was able to transfer my passion into a career in something that I talk about every single day.

Don’t go through life going to a job, find a career that you love and you feel you can really make a difference in.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

When I was fourteen, I had to take a huge risk by leaving my home in a small coal-mining town in the hills of West Virginia to move to Houston to train at an Olympic level.

When I was scouted during a competition and asked to move to Houston, I knew I had to. It was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and experiences like that, they didn’t just happen to people like me.

I remember being scared to death at the time. I was so young and had never been away from my home for more than a competition. I was going to move to Houston to train with some of the best coaches in the world. I knew the Olympic dream wasn’t possible unless I took that very big risk. That was really the start of it all.

This experience taught me the value of taking risks and chances and not being afraid to fail. While I love to win, I really do believe we learn a lot more as humans from our failures and that we need to use those failures to motivate us to be better.

Everything I’ve learned in my athletic career has transferred over into my career today. That’s why I still have a job as a brand ambassador for companies like Nature’s Bounty. As a trusted vitamin and supplement brand, their mission is all about encouraging people to commit to a heathier future.

When I speak with groups, whether it’s speaking to businesswomen and men in corporate America or to young athletes, I communicate how athletics and business are parallel in so many ways. There is no secret formula or magic pill to success – it takes dedication, preparation and hard work.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

It’s hard and definitely something I still struggle with. I know that a lot of working mothers deal with mother’s guilt and being away and I’ve always found that to be a challenge. I’ve missed a lot of things in their life because I am on the road quite a bit and it’s tough to find help. I’ve learned you have to ask for help when you need it and rely a lot on your friends and family to support you. The phrase, “it takes a village” really is true. Also, because my husband’s a college football coach, he’s not around a lot and not available so it really is just me in the kids’ lives.

All of that said, I really try to schedule all of my business activities while the kids are at school. When I pick them up from school, emails and phone calls can wait till the next morning. I think it’s really important to distinguish my role between a businesswoman and a mom.

In order to try and maintain my work/life balance, I’ve found that good preparation for your day and organization is critical. When I am home, I typically wake up early before my kids, and read my devotionals. At night, I lay out all my vitamins for my family. It’s one less step I have to do in the morning. I’ll then make a healthy breakfast for my kids and husband, and then we’re out the door to drop the kids off at school. Between four-five days a week, I also try to get a workout in.

During the school day, I run all my errands and then it’s time to pick up my daughters and start the second shift, which includes taking my children to all their different activities. I’ll then come home and make a healthy dinner for the family, help the kids with homework and start it all over again. I learned about preparedness from being an athlete. As an athlete, you had to be at practice at a certain time, and being late was not an option. When I’m prepared and organized, I don’t get as stressed, so that’s some advice I give to other moms as well.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

While we’ve made tremendous strides and gains, I think finding that balance between home life and work life is still such a huge issue. The road is still open and we’ve got a lot more to achieve.

For whatever reason, even though we are in 2016, it seems like childcare and all of the responsibilities of home still fall on us, as opposed to being equal with your husband or partner.

With a husband who isn’t available to help that much, it’s hard. Of course, we’ve had talks in our family about how I need help. When he is home, he does try to step up and help out where he can.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I wasn’t mentored, but I’ve had the opportunity to mentor others and have worked with a lot of 2016 Olympic teams, which was such a wonderful experience for me. Whether they called me or I called them, they would cry to me about their frustrations. I’ve been exactly where they are. I know the challenges and struggles in everything that is involved in being an Olympic athlete.

Working with Nature’s Bounty has had a really positive impact, as the brand focuses on taking care of your mental, spiritual, emotional, social and physical health now so that your efforts will pay dividends later. When you’re young, you’re not thinking about your future. You know, when I’m mentoring young athletes, I remind them that I am their future and I am giving them an example of what it’s like 30 years later.

I tell them how essential it is to take care of your physical self, and make time for self-love after a workout, whether that’s getting pampered or getting a massage. The mental preparation is also critical because you forget that you’re only doing this for such a short time. During this period in their lives, they live and breathe the Olympics. But, once all the craziness dies down, you go into life. You try to mentor these young athletes for what comes next. I’ve told them that they can and will continue to have success if they do this right and think smart.

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