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Mary Lou Retton says she was almost put on life support after health scare

Before word broke that Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton was “fighting for her life” in hospital, the gold medallist thought she was just a “washed up, old athlete.”

But when support and worry for Retton, 55, sounded from across the globe, it was impossible to deny just how beloved she really is.

Now, nearly three months after she was hospitalized with a “very rare form” of pneumonia, Retton gave her first interview about her illness, recovery and the support of her many admirers. While sitting down with Hoda Kotb on Today, Retton said she does not remember much of her month-long stay in hospital.

The former athlete must now wear a breathing apparatus that provides her oxygen, but she feels “so grateful” to be alive.

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

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Retton was 16 years old when she won five medals for gymnastics at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, including a gold medal in the all-around competition. She was the first American, man or woman, to win an Olympic all-around gold medal in the sport.

She was subsequently launched to fame and became a much-admired athlete around the world.

Mary Lou Retton competes in the balance beam competition during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Calif. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Retton said the day prior to her hospitalization, she and her eldest daughter Shayla, who sat next to her during the interview, were completely unsuspecting and went to get their nails done together.

She said she felt fatigued but chalked it up to nothing more than age. Retton’s daughter added that the gymnast was also “out of breath” throughout the day.

But the next day, a neighbour found Retton lying breathless and blue on her bedroom floor. In a stroke of luck, the neighbour approached the house because they noticed a car door had been left ajar in Retton’s driveway.

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Retton said the neighbour “saved her life.”

But her health scare didn’t end there; after a few days in hospital, she was discharged and sent home.

The day after her discharge, Shayla discovered Retton “almost unresponsive” in her home. She was transported to a different, larger hospital and brought to the ICU where her oxygen levels reportedly continued to drop.

The Retton family was told to prepare for the worst as doctors considered putting the gymnastics icon on a ventilator. In the interview with Today, Retton struggled to speak through tears as she apologized to Shayla for the goodbyes her children thought they would have to make.

But Retton’s life was saved when doctors decided to pump high-flow oxygen through her nose.

“If you know my mom, she’s a fighter,” Shayla said. “She’s the one in a million that wins the Olympics, but she’s also the one in a million that will get some rare form of pneumonia that you have no idea what it is, but she’ll make it through.”

The public’s reaction to Retton’s potentially fatal illness was loud — and further fuelled by the family’s insistence they did not have health insurance for Retton. A GoFundMe page was created by Retton’s children to cover her medical expenses and has since reached over US$459,000 (about C$613,600).

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Retton said part of the reason she was uninsured was because she’s had over 30 orthopedic operations and “couldn’t afford” the health coverage.

“That’s the bottom line. I couldn’t afford it,” Retton said. “Can you believe that?”

Now, Retton disclosed that she does have health insurance.

With tears still in her eyes, said the love from her admirers “touched me.” She said she will use the support from her fans to continue with strength in her recovery.

“When you face death in the eyes, I have so much to look forward to,” the normally private former gymnast said.

“I have no idea what the future holds for me,” she continued. “But I would never give up. It’s not in me.”

Retton was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997. She became the first woman to ever be honoured in the Houston Sports Hall of Fame in 2020. She was also the first woman to ever be featured on a Wheaties cereal box.

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