By Wayne Sterling and Thomas Schlachter, CNN
(CNN) — Olympic gymnastics legend Mary Lou Retton says she is lucky to be alive after the 55-year-old was hospitalized last year with a rare form of pneumonia that left her unable to breathe on her own.
Pneumonia is a respiratory infection that can cause the lungs to fill with fluid, with symptoms that can range from mild to life threatening. Adults older than 65, children younger than five and those with other medical conditions are most at risk. Retton’s family did not specify the type of rare pneumonia diagnosis.
Now wearing a nasal cannula, a device which supplies additional oxygen, Retton admitted she is in a very vulnerable state.
“I’m very private … Usually my interviews are, “Oh yes, it felt great to win the Olympics,’ Retton told NBC.
“This is serious, and this is life. I am so grateful to be here. I am blessed to be here because there was a time when they were about to put me on life support.”
Retton captured American hearts in 1984 when she was the first US gymnast to win the Olympic gymanastics all-around competition.
Dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” after winning five medals during the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Retton parlayed that into appearances in movies, TV shows, ads and on the front of boxes of Wheaties.
In 1997, she was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
The former gymnast told NBC that her neighbor “pretty much saved my life” after they found Retton at her home last year. The American said she had suddenly fallen ill after feeling a little tired the day before.
She was subsequently taken to a hospital and diagnosed with pneumonia, before being released. However, Retton was taken back to a different hospital the next day where she ended up in an intensive care unit (ICU).
Retton’s daughter, Shayla Schrepfer, joined her mother for the interview with NBC and said the medical staff had told the family to prepare for the worst.
Schrepfer, along with her sisters, set up a fundraiser for Retton during her month-long stay in the hospital to help pay for medical bills. Retton told NBC that she previously couldn’t afford health insurance but that she now has it.
“When you face death in the eyes, I have so much to look forward to. I’m a fighter and I’m not going to give it up,” Retton said.
Retton is now prepared for a long recovery journey but said she has been overwhelmed by the support she’s received.
“I just thought I was a washed up, old athlete – but the love, it touched me,” she added.
“Now that I’m alive and I made it through, there’s so many more positives than negatives.”
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