McKenna Kelley, daughter of Mary Lou Retton, blazes her own trail in gymnastics

McKenna Kelley will have the chance to help the LSU gymnastics team win its first national title in school history this weekend in Fort Worth, Texas. Chris Parent/LSU Athletics

When your mom is Olympic gymnastics superstar Mary Lou Retton and you take up her sport, there are bound to be certain expectations.

But McKenna Kelley, who exhibits the same spitfire tumbling and megawatt smile that made her mother famous at the 1984 Olympic Games, never felt she had to be "the new Mary Lou," as every U.S. gymnastics prodigy since has been labeled at one time or another.

"Growing up, I never had that pressure," says Kelley, now a standout freshman on Louisiana State University's gymnastics team. "And I feel like people have a hard time believing that. You see 'Dance Moms' and you see how crazy those moms are and you just assume that an Olympic champion would want her child to be like that. But my mom never, ever put pressure on us. Ever. If anything, when we were growing up she'd be like, 'You should quit. You don't want to get hurt or anything!' "

McKenna, the second of Retton's four daughters with former Texas quarterback Shannon Kelley, started mommy-and-me gymnastics classes at age 2 and rarely left the gym after that.

"McKenna was very, very bouncy, and very strong-willed. She still is," Retton says. "She was an adorable little child, always flipping around, following her older sister, who was also in gymnastics. She could do it all: pullups, situps, the rope climb. She had no idea how strong she was."

The Kelley girls played T-ball, softball and basketball as children, but also benefited from the perks of being gymnastics royalty. They went to the national championships every year, where Retton was always one of the guests of honor, and watched future Olympic gold medalists Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Gabby Douglas compete from premium seats.

Despite inheriting the Retton aptitude for tumbling and vaulting, Kelley didn't consider elite gymnastics for herself until she was 17, a year older than her mother had been when she clinched the Olympic all-around title in Los Angeles. In fact, Kelley had never dwelled on her own Olympic potential. "It wasn't something I was necessarily turned off by," she says of the elite gymnastics world, "but because I was a part of it already I never really thought about it."

In a potentially star-making turn, Kelley tied for first at the prestigious Nastia Liukin Cup title in 2014, then qualified for elite status and was among those selected to attend U.S. national team training camps at the Karolyi Ranch outside of Houston, Texas.

While Retton never hesitated to put her daughters into gymnastics -- "whether they stuck with it or not, gymnastics is a great base for any athletic activity," she says -- nobody better knew the difference between doing the sport for fun and doing it as an elite competitor.

"I trained with the Karolyis for four-and-a-half years and it was intense every single minute, and McKenna got a taste of it trying to do the elite thing up there," Retton says. "It's hard. You've got to live it, you've got to sleep it, you've got to eat it, you've got to think it, and there's no break from it. That's what the elite world is, I told her, but I'll support whatever you want to do. I didn't want her to wake up when she was 48 -- my age -- and say gosh, I wonder what it would have been like to try."

Stress fractures in her legs ended a bid to compete at the 2015 Pan American Games, but by then Kelley had a new goal: competing in college. She looked at Georgia, UCLA and Missouri but was won over by the "warmth and love" of the LSU team and coaching staff. Within six weeks of arriving at school, she called her mother and announced that "gymnastics is fun again," Retton says.

This weekend, Kelley hopes to help her team write history at the NCAA championships in Fort Worth, Texas, a few hours up the freeway from the Retton-Kelley home. The Tigers have never won a national title, though they finished a program best second at the NCAA championships in 2014.

The Kelley girls are all involved in gymnastics in one way or another. McKenna's older sister Shayla, 21, was a level 10 gymnast and is now part of the Baylor University Acrobatics and Tumbling team, and younger sister Skyla, 15, is a competitive cheerleader. Emma, 13, is on the elite track at Stars Gymnastics in Houston, where McKenna trained before LSU.

Watching her daughters compete has always been nerve-wracking for Retton, who admits to being "a crazy loud obnoxious mom" when it comes to cheering. "I commentate to myself: Drive your heels! Look for your landing! Stick! All the same things I told myself when I was competing. McKenna is the same type of gymnast that I was, and she has to control all that energy. But saying those things kind of helps calm me down."

And Kelley loves having her parents at her meets. "It's so rewarding to look up and see the pride they have. It's really touching that I can do what I love to do and they're there supporting me. And of course my mom's all over the place, screaming her head off."