You could say that LSU freshman gymnast McKenna Kelley inherited the family business.
Kelley is the daughter of gymnastics legend Mary Lou Retton, who at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics became the first American woman to win the all-around gold medal.
Naturally, the reminders and comparisons for the second-oldest daughter of Mary Lou and her husband Shannon Kelley (a former Texas quarterback and assistant head coach/running backs coach at Houston Baptist) are endless.
“People tell me all the time that they watched her in the Olympics,” said McKenna, who will be part of LSU’s lineup Saturday when the No. 3-ranked Tigers compete in a four-team meet at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.
Though Retton calls McKenna the one of her four girls most like her, there’s a big difference between mother and daughter.
While Retton followed the 1984 games with exhibitions like the 1985 Mardi Gras Invitational in a packed Pete Maravich Assembly Center, college gymnastics was never part of her career arc. Kelley is the first of her daughters to choose this route.
The distinction is meaningful to her.
“I’m doing what my mom didn’t do,” Kelley said.
That spirit is something Retton embraces.
“She’s a lot like me in terms of personality,” Retton said. “A little go-getter. She came out that way, bubbly and moving to the beat of her own drum.
“I put all four of my daughters in gymnastics because it was near and dear to my heart. But I tried to instill in them to make their own path.”
Kelley quickly made her way into a contributing role in LSU’s highly competitive lineup as a regular on floor routine.
“Making that LSU lineup is hard,” Retton said. “It’s deep.
“She was a Level 10 national champion on floor. That’s her event. Her personality really comes through.”
So does her concentration.
Last Friday night just before she was about to begin her floor routine, Kelley spotted Retton taking a seat on press row to share the call of her event with Olympic teammates Bart Conner and Kathy Johnson Clarke (who competed at Centenary).
“Before I was up on floor, I was looking to see where she was in the crowd,” Kelley recalled. “I thought, ‘She’s probably taking a picture with someone.’ Then right before I go on the floor I’m looking around and I see my mom with a headset on. I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ ”
No bother. Kelley came through with a 9.90, just 25-hundreths off her career-best mark two weeks earlier against Auburn. As McKenna’s routine ended in a final pose, Retton thrust her arms into the air in triumph.
“I was so nervous,” Retton said. “Typical nervous mom. I was talking to her (during the routine), doing the routine with her.”
No one in the Kelley family knew exactly where college gymnastics would take McKenna except that it was likely to be out of state — TWU is one of the few colleges in Texas to field a program.
Kelley said LSU wasn’t really on her recruiting radar until her youth coach in Houston, Ashly Baker, mentioned LSU.
“I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Kelley recalled. “I came down and was in love. It felt like home.”
Retton was ecstatic over McKenna’s choice.
“I felt the magic,” Retton said. “It’s a special place. I’ve known D-D (Breaux) forever and Jay Clarke is one of the best recruiters in college gymnastics. I knew she was not only going to be in a great gymnastics environment, but you want someone who will care for your child. Someone who can make your child a better human being. (Assistant coach) Bob (Moore) as well. I felt I was dropping off my daughter with family.”
LSU comes into Saturday’s meet riding a streak of three consecutive strong performances — 197.825 at home against Auburn, 197.900 at Florida and 197.925 last week against Alabama — in successive season-high scores.
Though LSU is stepping outside the Southeastern Conference, the Tigers’ goal is to keep the momentum going heading into next week’s SEC championships in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
Breaux picked this meet for its similar format to next week’s SEC competition: a four-team rotation in which the Tigers will compete in the same order bars, beam, floor and vault.
“The focus for us is going to be on what we’re going to be doing at the SEC championships,” Breaux said. “We’re really glad about this meet being a four-team meet.”
Kelley said the Tigers are ready.
“We look at this meet as another building block for SECs, regionals and nationals,” she said. “We want to hit and make this one of our top road scores, for sure.”
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.