The retired Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast revealed her split from her husband of 27 years publicly for the first time on Monday night’s episode of Dancing with the Stars before being eliminated. Now, she says, she’s ready for a new chapter.
“I’m on a really good path, and I’m happy with my life,” Retton, 50, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I’m really excited for what this new chapter is going to bring instead of being that scared person that I was a couple of months ago. I really have done a full turnaround.”
Retton, who wed Kelley in 1990, says that “there wasn’t one defining moment” that led to their divorce, which was finalized in February.
“It was that we grew apart,” she says.
Though Retton felt lonely throughout the process, she says she had the support of the couple’s four daughters — Shayla, 23, McKenna, 21, Skyla, 18, and Emma, 16.
“My daughters were amazing,” she says. “There’s that fine line between a daughter and a friend, so there’s a lot that I couldn’t share with them. They were angry in the beginning, and any child should be with their family being torn apart — but we’ve vowed that we would do holidays together and we’re going to try to make it as seamless and as painless as possible.”
“I don’t think they were surprised,” she adds. “We were arguing towards the end a lot, but I think that they were shocked that it actually happened.”
Though Retton admits she’s a “pretty private person,” she decided to share the news about her divorce in such a public manner so that she could be transparent about everything she had been going through.
“I’m not one to air my dirty laundry, but for the entire show I kept talking about struggles and challenges and how I lost myself and all of that,” she says. “I just felt this is my chance to really be clear and to be transparent to people. That was a big part of my struggle the last few years — do I do it? You know, all the things that come with a divorce of that magnitude with such a large family. I just wanted to be authentic. I wanted to tell people why.”
“I knew I wanted to do it in a classy way,” she continues. “I wasn’t there to bash my ex. It was just to say it in a way that I felt would let people know what I’m going through but yet still do it with loving words.”
After the show aired, Retton says a lot of people reached out and were surprised to hear that she and Kelley had separated.
“My close-knit people obviously knew, but not a lot of people knew,” she says. “I don’t think the ex told anybody, but that’s just coming from me — that could be wrong. A lot of people were surprised.”
She also says she checked comments on her social media pages — something she doesn’t normally do — to see if her story inspired anybody going through the same thing.
“There were women saying they’ve been in the same predicament as myself [with a] long marriage and thanking me for giving them the hope and courage to continue,” she says. “I think me coming out with that did help a lot of women.”
For Retton, the opportunity to participate on DWTS came at just the right time following her divorce, as she was looking to get away. (Retton lives in Houston, and the show is filmed in Los Angeles.)
“I got away and just started over,” she says. “I talked to Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin before I went out, and they said it would be an incredible journey — that’s what I was hoping for, and it certainly was. It really helped me find that woman that I was searching for. She had gone away and I knew she was in there — that strong, powerful, confident woman — and I found her.”
Now, Retton is back home in Texas with her family and taking time to rest after dealing with some DWTS-related injuries.
“I’m pretty beat up,” she says. “I popped a rib last week, so that’s pretty painful. I have a bad knee, and I’m pretty sure I re-tore my rotator cuff, which I’ve had three operations on, so that’s not fun. I’ll probably have some more operations in the future, but it’s alright.”
Though Retton would have liked to stay longer in the competition, she’s excited to go back to set in two weeks for the finale and plans on keeping in touch with her pro-dancing partner Sasha Farber.
As to whether she has gotten a chance to step back into the dating pool, Retton says, “Not yet!”
“I’m scared a little bit,” she says. “I hadn’t done that in over 30 years. I’m scared!”
“I guess I got to find myself a dancer, don’t I?” she adds. “That would be really amazing if I found myself a dancer. I’m excited — scared, but excited.”
Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays (8 p.m. ET) on ABC.