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By Jo-Ann Barnas – Special to USA Gymnastics
It might sound strange, but one of the biggest challenges for Nastia Liukin as she began rehearsals for "Dancing with the Stars" with professional partner and five-time champ Derek Hough was learning how to share her space.
For nearly two decades as a competitor, the 2008 Olympic women’s all-around champion performed and trained alone – well, except for the occasional assist from her coaching father when spotting a trick.
“Gymnastics is individual,” Liukin told USA Gymnastics during last week’s AT&T American Cup in Dallas. “I’m not used to being so close to someone, and I think that’s been the hardest thing.”
Liukin, 25, will try to become the fifth Olympian to capture the Mirror Ball Trophy when “Dancing with the Stars” kicks off season 20 with a two-hour premiere at 8 p.m. ET Monday on ABC.
The others: ice dancer Meryl Davis (season 18), gymnast Shawn Johnson (season 8), figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi (season 6) and short track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno (season 4).
Lean and long-legged, Liukin was the epitome of grace during her gymnastics career. But truth be told, though, she’s never taken a dance class. So when she and Hough first partnered up, the lack of chemistry between them was, well, painfully obvious, the five time Olympic medalist said.
“I kept trying to be further away, and he’s saying, ‘You have to come closer to me; you have to feel that chemistry and connection.’” Liukin said. “For me, I’m not used to feeling a connection to anybody.’’
Asked how they’ve been working on becoming partners, rather than two people dancing, she said: “I think I can only achieve it through practice. It is emotion, and it’s nice to be able to have a partner like Derek because he’s such a professional, and so when we are dancing, it is just both of us and we do have to feel that chemistry and that connection. But it’s also a job, and I think that’s what I’m starting to understand. When we’re dancing or rehearsing or performing, we are this one unit.”
Liukin will try to become the first gymnast to win “DWTS” since her former Olympic teammate did it with partner Mark Ballas in 2009.
At 17, Johnson – 2008 Olympic balance beam gold medalist and runner-up to Liukin the all-around – was the youngest contestant to win. In 2013, Johnson partnered with Hough in the all-star edition of the show; the couple finished second.
Liukin, 25, will fly cross country from New York to California each week to perform on the show. A junior in sports management at NYU, she needed to drop a Monday class to make her busy schedule work.
Hough is currently performing in the Rockettes’ New York Spring Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, so their proximity works well for rehearsals, she said.
Liukin, whose corporate sponsors include GK Elite Sportswear, said that she and Hough have been part of their costume designs for the show.
“I feel like for all of these years, I’ve kind of built what I’ve wanted to become – in like, this brand, and this image, and it’s important for me to go out there to do a dance in a costume that represents me,” she said. “I want to keep my identity and my person and not have producers and people make me wear certain things or dance to a certain piece of music. Derek and I have been a really good team in the sense of, like, really talking things through and he really understands that. It’s nice to have a partner who understands what that means because he’s also on that same path in his career.’’
Slipping on a pair of heels instead of feeling the competition floor beneath her feet has been an obvious adjustment for Liukin.
“I can do certain jumps and kicks without shoes on, but then when I put shoes on, I’m like, ‘Oh, wait! I can’t really do that,’’ she said with a laugh. “It’s going to take time for me to learn how to dance, in general, and also how to be with someone else. I mean, like, the day before yesterday, I was stepping all over his feet because I’m not used to being so close to someone in anything that I do. I had my dad there (in gymnastics), but he was there for safety.
“So it takes time. I think a lot of people assume, ‘Oh, you’re a gymnast. You have the biggest advantage.’ But there are so many things that become muscle memory to me that I have to completely reverse. Like hand positions. I’m used to doing strong hands. Now in ballroom, everything is flowing hands, and Derek keeps having to remind me of that.”