Known for her smile and her positive attitude, Mary Lou Retton talks about the secret of real happiness. by Rachel L. Martin

       She's "America's Sweetheart"-famous for her smile and Stars-and-Strips leotard. Mary Lou Retton vaulted into the list of household names with an Olympic gold medal in 1984. Since then, we've watched her tackle many projects. From motivational speaking to interviewing athletes at the 1996 Olympics to motherhood, for the last 16 years she has covered it all with a grin. Now, she has added yet another accomplishment: Gateways to Happiness, a book describing how she has found happiness in the midst of all the stress and expectations.

       Because of her constant grin and the "smile question" (the term she uses for people's frequent response to her positive outlook), the idea behind the book had been suggested to her by friends and family for awhile.

        "People always ask me, Are you for real? Why are you always happy? I really believe deep down, we can all find true happiness," she says. "In this crazy, wild world we live in, it's hard, and it's going to take effort, but we can."

       However, despite this conviction, she felt she needed to pursue other goals, pray with her husband and wait for the right time to write the book. That time came last year when, as she says, "I felt within that I was ready to write a book about happiness."

       While Gateways to Happiness, co-written with author and editor David Bender, is not her first book, she feels that much more of what she has learned was poured into this one. She wrote her first book, MaryLou: Creating an Olympic Champion, with her coach Bella Karolyi and author John Powers, shortly after winning her medal, and she feels as though it concentrated more on autobiographical information than Gateways does. "I don't even remember the process," she says. "At 16, I didn't want to be writing a book, I wanted to be getting my driver's license. (Gateways) was a whole new process and a whole new project for me, and something I really had never done before."

       When she first looked at writing the book, she identified several authors she was interested in working with and then spent a weekend with each of them seeing who could best capture her voice and feelings. After selecting Bender as her co-author, she sat at her computer each night after the kids went to bed writing emails to him describing her different experiences and what they had taught her. He then compiled and organized the information into book form.

       Choosing what she sees as the seven most important areas of her life: family, faith, relationships, attitude, discipline, health and laughter, Retton includes stories about her kids, 15 pages of healthy recipe options, and lessons learned under Karolyi. In addition, she also discusses some things she had never talked about with the public before. "I had to dig deep and search for things. It was difficult, but it was wonderful for me, almost like therapy."

       One of the most personal topics she addressed was her Christianity. While she has been a Christian during all of her career, from the beginning, her managers and agents warned, "Politics and religion are the first thing people will dislike you for." Hence, though she shared her faith with people on a personal basis, the first time she gave her testimony in a public venue was last October during Billy Graham's Crusade for Christ in St. Louis. "I (gave) my first Christian testimony ever to the world," she laughs. "I didn't do it locally at my church; I did it to the world."

       Another difficult topic that she discusses in her book is her college experience. Her training schedule kept her from completing her last two years of high school-so Retton attained her General Education Diploma and began building a hectic speaking career. Two years later, when she was the age most teens enter college, she enrolled at the University of Texas. Because of all the different pressures she found there, she only completed two years. "People just assume that I (completed college), but I didn't," she says. "After having kids, I (thought), Oh my gosh, what kind of role model am I going to be for my daughters? Because college isn't an option; they're going. But I don't want those Well, Mommy, you didn't go kind of things."

       However, while on the phone with a friend, she heard about an article featuring women who returned to school as their youngest child entered college, and she made a new resolve. "Right now, where the Lord has placed me is to raise those daughters, and when they're gone, I'm going to get back on with my life. I will graduate. Maybe I'll go into law. Who knows?"

       Despite her variety of commitments, one subject continually resurfaces: her family. Composed of her husband Shannon, her daughters Shayla (5) and McKenna (3), (she had a third child in August). Her family ranks above other interests, and she cites this prioritization as a part of what has made her so happy. When she was first married, she was on the road seven or eight days in a row giving speeches. When Shayla was born, Retton brought the child along with her to the different engagements. "When the second one came, that stopped," she says. "I made different rules and regulations. My limit is one night away. My daughters always know that I come back, and if I have to be gone more than one night, they come with me."

       In addition to these stipulations, both she and Shannon choose not to work on the weekends and especially on Sundays. Oh, and if people call between 4 p.m. and the time the kids go to bed at about 7:30, she doesn't answer the phone. "That's family time; that's dinner time; that's the most hectic time in our household," she says. "My kids know that's their time. There's nothing that can't wait until 7:35."

       Through the choices she has made and the direction she has taken her life, Retton believes she has found her way to be happy and has been given an opportunity to share her bits of wisdom with other people. "I have my bad days just like everybody else when I'm cranky and stressed out," she says.

       But she's found that setting her priorities, being organized and handing things over to God helps her survive her hectic schedule. "I'm sitting at my desk and I have this torn, tattered piece of paper taped to it, and it says, Good morning, this is God. I will be handling all of your problems today. I will not need your help, so have a good day."

       And her smile can be heard over the phone.

Reprinted by permission, Profile Magazine.