By Blythe Lawrence
Nastia Liukin had just arrived in Detroit when the call from Sarah Hirshland came through. It was the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO herself who informed the 2008 Olympic all-around champion that she and 12 other athletes had been elected to the USOP Hall of Fame. The 2019 class also includes Olympic stars Apolo Ohno, Lisa Leslie, Dara Torres and John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
“I was totally shocked,” said Liukin, who turns 30 next month. “I knew I was a finalist, but there were so many other incredible finalists — so many that I looked up to as a little girl. So just to be even a finalist amongst those Olympians was a huge honor.”
Eleven years after her history-making performance in Beijing, where she not only became the third American woman to capture the most coveted prize in women’s gymnastics but picked up three silvers and a bronze, making her the most successful gymnast at the Games and tying her with American greats Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller for most medals won by a gymnast in a single Olympics. She is the sixth individual gymnast, after Retton, Miller, 1984 Olympic team gold medalists Bart Conner and Peter Vidmar, and legendary coach Abie Grossfeld, to be inducted into the USOP Hall of Fame.
Liukin’s rise to the top of the sport as the daughter of 1988 Soviet Olympic gold medalist Valeri Liukin and World rhythmic champion Anna Kotchneva is the stuff of gymnastics fairy tales, but behind the glamourous results were years of hard work to get to the top and maintain her level once there. An ankle injury sustained at the 2006 World Championships limited her training in the penultimate year before the Games, while the largely media-generated rivalry between herself and fellow Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson within the strong U.S. team added an extra layer of pressure.
For all that, Liukin’s golden moment, in an all-around final held the morning of August 15, 2008, so it could be televised in primetime in the U.S., could not have been better. Beginning with her flawless one-and-a-half twisting Yurchenko vault and ending with four sharp tumbling passes to a floor exercise featuring Russian folk music, Liukin turned in a perfectly-peaked Olympic performance for the ages to win the all-around title ahead of Johnson and host nation star Yang Yilin.
“It was obviously very special then, but I don’t think I was able to fully process and understand exactly how special it was,” she said. “And I was also constantly surrounded by so many Olympic greats, including my dad, that I just wanted to achieve what they did. Now being older, I’ve realized how truly amazing that moment was.”
Olympic gold opened the doors to fame and a much different life than Liukin, a Southern Methodist University student when she struck gold, could have imagined. Since the Olympics, she has graduated with a degree in sports management from New York University, traveled the world, appeared in advertising campaigns and grown into a role as a gymnastics commentator for NBC, all while maintaining close ties with the sport. The Nastia Liukin Cup, which had its 10th edition this past March, provides an opportunity for young competitors to experience what it’s like to compete on a podium in a large arena. Liukin herself handles most of the details, down to designing the competition leotards and planning a gymnasts-only brunch where she takes time to mentor the athletes who have qualified to compete.
Eleven years on from the Games, Liukin and Johnson, who rekindled their friendship several years ago, are now the best of friends. Liukin’s schedule is still packed as she flits between her homes in Dallas and Los Angeles and supports her boyfriend, Detroit Lions punter Sam Martin, with frequent trips to Michigan during the NFL season. She’ll be sure to be in Colorado Springs for the USOP Hall of Fame Induction ceremony on November 1.
“I’m kind of based on an airplane,” she said. “I started a business I’m currently in the rebranding process of, launched a product at Sephora with Violation Beauty that I would love to expand on, and am currently working on something the gymnastics community will hopefully love, just in time for Tokyo!”
While Liukin’s many projects keep her extremely busy, she’s recently realized the benefits of taking time for herself to maintain a good work/life balance. “I’ve also really made an effort to focus on my personal life a bit more than in the past. Balancing the two hasn’t always been easy for me, but it’s definitely now my priority. And of course, I would love to start a family eventually,” she said. “I still have so much I’d like to accomplish.”