Mary Lou Retton reveals new details of health battle in first TV interview

Mary Lou Retton speaks out on her health condition, her financial situation and the overwhelming love she has received

Amelia Neath
Monday 08 January 2024 20:57 GMT
Mary Lou Retton reveals new details of health battle in first TV interview

Former Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton has revealed that her neighbour found her on the floor struggling to breathe before she was admitted to hospital.

Speaking to Hoda Kotb on the NBC Today show, Ms Retton sat down alongside her eldest daughter, Shayla Schrepfer, to reveal new details about her frightening battle with a rare form of pneumonia.

“I’m very private and to come out and talk about it… Usually, my interviews are ‘Oh yes, it felt great to win the Olympics’,” Ms Retton said, sitting in her Texas home where she has continued her recovery since leaving the ICU.

The gold medallist is currently using a portable oxygen apparatus to help her breathe while her lungs heal, but she disclosed that she has come a long way from her time in the ICU.

“I am blessed to be here because there was a time when they were about to put me on life support,” she said during the interview.

Her daughter recounted that a doctor told her that her mother may not make it through the night, and rounded up her three other sisters to come and see her after Ms Retton’s oxygen levels reached very low levels.

The former Olympic gymnast was almost put on life support during her ICU stay while battling pneumonia
The former Olympic gymnast was almost put on life support during her ICU stay while battling pneumonia (Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

Yet, a last-minute decision to pump High-Flow oxygen through her nose meant the former athlete was able to battle her condition a little further.

"I mean, when you face death in the eyes, I have so much to look forward to," said Ms Retton, who was able to return home in late October, around a month after she was admitted.

Ms Retton’s condition was announced publicly by her daughter, McKenna Kelley, on a fundraising website in early October, asking for help to cover her medical bills as she was “fighting for her life”.

On the day she was taken to hospital, Ms Retton told the outlet she was found by a neighbour lying in her bedroom struggling to breathe.

She said her “dear friend”, her neighbour Magda, found her after she spotted that one of Ms Retton’s cars had the door wide open.

She added that her neighbour “pretty much saved my life”, as she was rushed to an emergency room who advised her to go to hospital.

However, before she was admitted to the ICU, she was sent home from the hospital after a couple of days, despite her pleas to medical staff that she couldn’t breathe.

While at home, Ms Retton’s condition went from bad to worse as she reached dangerously low oxygen levels, forcing her back into the hospital.

Retton won five gold medals at the 1984 Olympics in gymnastics
Retton won five gold medals at the 1984 Olympics in gymnastics (Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

The medical bill fundraiser raised a huge $459,000, with many devoted fans donating money to who they know as “America’s Sweetheart”, a nickname she earned after she won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympic games.

Her daughter disclosed on the fundraiser that she did not have any medical insurance, something that shocked many.

When asked about this, Ms Retton said in the Today interview that “when Covid hit and after my divorce and all my pre-existing — I’ve had over 30 operations of orthopaedic stuff — I couldn’t afford it.”

Now, Ms Retton is insured and plans to give “all remaining funds” from the fundraiser to charity.

The gymnast said she still doesn’t know what caused her pneumonia, as she tested negative for Covid-19, the flu and RSV, and doctors also concluded it wasn’t bacterial or fungal, the outlet reported.

Once Ms Retton gains back more strength, doctors will perform a biopsy to try and understand what happened.

While she doesn’t know if she will have lasting lung issues, what has got her through so far is the overwhelming amount of support she has had from fans.

“I just thought I was a washed up, old athlete, but the love, it touched me,” she said to the show.

Ms Retton was only 15 years old when she started to make a name for herself in US competitions, winning the American Cup and coming second at the US Gymnastic National Championship in 1983.

The following year, she took the Los Angeles Olympic Games by storm, winning a gold medal as well as two bronze and two silver medals in other competitions within the games.

She was awarded a gold medal after she scored perfect 10s on the floor and vault events, gaining first place by just 0.05 points.

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