Valeri Liukin is a two-time Olympic champion himself, a father to another and one of the most highly regarded coaches in all of gymnastics. But when he found out that he was to become USA Gymnastics’ new women’s national team coordinator, he still – despite his many and varied accomplishments in the sport – struggled to find the words to express his excitement.
“I don’t know if I can say it’s a dream come true, but it feels like one,” he said in a phone interview. “I don’t know how to describe it.”
The word that has described the U.S. women’s program over the last decade-plus has been “golden,” and its ever-present leader, Martha Karolyi, stepped away from her position after the Rio Olympics last month to retire, having led the team to an unprecedented period of greatness over the last 15 years with 96 World and Olympic medals.
“We are at the highest level there is,” said Liukin. “It’s not going to be easy – it shouldn’t be – but I have been a part of this team for many years in one way or another. I have been at The Ranch since 1999 and have coached several generations of national team members. I know the drill. I grew up in that system as a gymnast, and I’ve raised my athletes in that same system, too.”
It’s a system that brought the U.S. nine medals in women’s gymnastics – four of them gold – at the Olympics last month, and one that Liukin plans to work himself into as its leader. For the last four years, he has been the elite developmental coordinator, helping recognize and foster talent at the younger levels.
Having started WOGA – a Dallas-area chain of world-class gymnastics facilities – in 1994, Liukin served as a national team coach from 1998 to 2011. He will continue in his role as developmental coordinator, as well.
“One of the greatest assets that Valeri brings to the table is his work ethic and his passion,” said Rhonda Faehn, USA Gymnastics senior vice president of women’s program. “He has the credentials of a gymnast himself, as a coach and a gym owner, but in terms of his work ethic and his passion, I was able to get a great view of that stepping away from his personal accomplishments and seeing what he has done in his role of developmental coordinator.”
The role that many – most – gymnastics fans know Liukin from is that of father and coach to 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin. WOGA also helped produce 2004 Olympic champ Carly Patterson, as well as 2016 team gold medalist and uneven bars silver medalist Madison Kocian. In addition to Nastia, Valeri personally coached World medalists Rebecca Bross and Ivana Hong.
“I’ve never been more proud to be his daughter,” said Nastia. “He’s always been my father, but he’s also been a role model and inspiration for me, so to see him achieve something that he has wanted to do for so long, to see him lead the U.S. team, that makes me very proud of him.”
Valeri will oversee his first national team camp at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas starting Sept. 28. While Nastia said that many of the athletes will have to get used to seeing a new face in charge at camp, Valeri said it will be business as usual as the 2020 quad officially kicks off.
“There is no point in changing something that isn’t broken,” he said of the program that Karolyi has run over the last 15 years. “There is nothing new for me. I believe in it.”
As a gymnast for the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 90s, Liukin won four medals – two golds and two silvers – at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and has a high bar skill named after him. He is a two-time international coach of the year and has been inducted into both the international and U.S. gymnastics halls of fame.
“Valeri has excelled as a personal coach, and he has demonstrated his ability to lead and guide other coaches through his efforts as the elite developmental coordinator,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. “He will provide a smooth transition from the program that has been created.”
Valeri said he plans to have regular chats with the Karolyis, who live on the property where The Ranch – the national training center for the women’s program – is set, as he settles into his new position and beyond.
He said he will set a goal as golden as the one that Martha Karolyi accomplished quad after quad after quad.
“We are basically going to have a brand new national team,” Valeri said. “I have kids that are going to come to camp that I have been working with already. There are a lot of new people. That’s what makes it exciting and fun.”
Nastia said what is most similar about her father and Martha is their want – their need – for perfection in their athletes. It’s a good quality for any gymnastics coach.
“I think him being a perfectionist is something that will help lead the team to success,” she said. “It doesn’t come with giving up. Something that really helped me was that he had been in my shoes – in all of our shoes as an Olympian. He wanted me to come away with a gold medal. He is going to pass that along to the next generation. Whether it’s your personal coach or the team coach, you want them to believe that you can be the greatest. He definitely has huge shoes to fill. Martha has been so successful the last few quads.”
Faehn believes Valeri is up to that test, however.
“The coaches and athletes had a tremendous amount of respect for Martha, and I feel as though Valeri commands that same respect,” she said. “He knows what it takes. He knows the kind of work and desire that is required to achieve these results.”
Liukin will draw on his differing layers of experience – as a decorated Olympian, coach of an Olympic champion, developmental coordinator, gym owner and father.
“It’s not just about being a good coach, it’s about being a good manager,” he said. “I think we’re ready.”