|Nastia Liukin attends the 'MARILYN: The Lost Photos Of A Hollywood Star' opening night exhibit at Sumo New York on July 22, 2014 in New York City.
PITTSBURGH -- Six years after winning the 2008 Olympic all-around gold medal, and two years after retiring from gymnastics, Nastia Liukin returned to the P&G Gymnastics Championships in late August and, for the first time, she didn’t feel like she wasn’t supposed to be out there competing.
“I feel like I found my place in my life and really realized and learned who Nastia is outside of gymnastics, and I think that’s been the biggest thing that’s happened in the last year,” Liukin told TeamUSA.org.
Liukin has been to every U.S. championships since 2002, and even though she didn’t compete in 2010 or 2011, she was still a gymnast with hopes of competing in London in 2012. Since her last competition, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Liukin has finally and truly begun turning the page to the next stage of her life.
In 2013, she left her hometown of Parker, Texas, to begin classes at New York University. She’s rapidly progressing toward her degree in sports management. After just a year and a half, she starts her junior year on Tuesday and is signed up for 19 credits, well over the standard 15.
“I will be 25 soon,” she said with a smile, “so it’s kind of nice to jump ahead of the boat a little bit.”
Concurrently with school, and with the help of an agent and a publicist, she’s also jumped headfirst into her career. In February, while still taking classes, she traveled to Sochi as a correspondent for NBC at the Olympic Winter Games. In Pittsburgh, in addition to being inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, Liukin provided commentary at the P&G Championships for the second consecutive year.
Then there’s the celebrity angle. Especially now that she’s in New York, Liukin remains in-demand for endorsements, speaking engagements and other appearances, like when she threw out the first pitch at a New York Mets game in August.
What excites Liukin most, though, is her work within gymnastics.
USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny remembers a conversation he had with Liukin shortly after the 2008 Games.
“I want to stay connected to the sport,” she told him.
“She knew that for most of her life she was probably going to be involved in USA Gymnastics,” Penny said. “So she really wanted to put a stake in the ground, and we came up with the Nastia Liukin Cup series.”
The Nastia Liukin Cup is a big reason why Liukin felt excited to be bringing a PowerPoint, not a pink leotard, to Pittsburgh. She has partnered with USA Gymnastics to put on the gymnastics competition since 2010, and in the days before this year’s P&G Championships she pitched Penny some new ideas via PowerPoint.
“I’m not good on the computer,” she said of her PowerPoint presentation, “but put pictures and everything.”
Though Liukin won’t reveal any of her big ideas, she said she hopes to take the Liukin Cup “a few steps further in the next few years.”
The Cup has already come a long way. What began in 2010 as an ambitious event affiliated with a peak-of-her-powers Olympic icon has quietly grown into a staple on the U.S. gymnastics calendar.
Each year, young gymnasts from around the country begin by competing in qualifying meets. The winners move on to the main event, the Nastia Liukin Cup, which is held in conjunction with the American Cup, an FIG World Cup event. So not only do the young gymnasts get to meet Liukin and compete in leotards designed by the gymnastics icon, but also they get to compete on the same stage as the world-class gymnasts taking part in the American Cup the following day.
For some Liukin Cup competitors, the Cup is a (figurative) springboard to their own elite careers.
Maggie Nichols was 13 years old when she finished 20th at the 2011 event.
“It was my first time on a podium and on TV and everything, and I thought it was so cool,” she said.
In Pittsburgh, Nichols, now 16, placed third in the all-around at the U.S. championships. Others have taken it further. A 14-year-old named Gabby Douglas finished fourth in the inaugural Liukin Cup in 2010. Two years later, she won the 2012 Olympic all-around gold medal in London.
The 2015 Liukin and American Cups will be held at AT&T Stadium, the 80,000-seat home stadium for the Dallas Cowboys, which is also a short drive from Liukin’s hometown. While Liukin offers that she plans to make the hometown event “extra special,” the most specific detail she reveals is that the leotards she designs will have “more bling.” Beyond 2015, she said a future event might be held at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the 2012 event was held.
While Liukin has big plans for her namesake event, the fact that the Cup operates more in the conscience of the grassroots gymnastics community than the mainstream Olympic audience lends credence to her earnestness.
Liukin knows that people have preconceived perceptions about celebrities who start classes at NYU or who lend their names to certain causes or events. She proudly bucks both stereotypes: NYU isn’t just a name she drops in interviews — “I’m not one of those that just skips class,” she said — and the Liukin Cup isn’t just some way to keep her name in the public eye. The former gymnast is involved in even the mundane details of the Cup, such as vetting the gyms that apply to host the qualifying meets.
“That has been something that’s important to me,” she said. “The same thing with anything that my name is on.”
Penny is among those who takes pride in watching Liukin’s post-gymnastics career unfold. In 2005, he presented the then-15-year-old gymnast with her first U.S. title in his first year as USA Gymnastics president. Today, she represents the model for how he’d like the relationship between the organization and the athletes to continue once competitive careers end.
“It’s all about where does she want to go, what makes sense and how do we work together to provide opportunity?” Penny said.
Liukin, who turns 25 in October, is still like many other college juniors in trying to figure out what opportunities to pursue.
Though she’s studying sports management and enjoyed a recent class she took on sports law, she says she’s not particularly interested in becoming an agent. More broadcasting definitely does appeal to her, though. Liukin signed a new contract with NBC that will keep her with the network for gymnastics coverage through the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. After serving as a correspondent for NBC in Sochi, she said she’d be interested in working regularly in such a role for NBC’s “Today” show.
Of course, there’s gymnastics, too. Liukin has no plans to give up her involvement in the Nastia Liukin Cup, and her long relationship designing leotards for GK Elite continued with another new collection out before the P&G Championships.
For someone who has always been busy, though, whether as an elite gymnast, a full-time student or an in-demand celebrity, there’s also some appeal to finishing school as soon as she can, hence the 19 credits this semester.
“I enjoy school, but at the same time I’m ready to focus on my career and have a life outside of school and work,” she said. “Because as of right now, it’s really hard. It’s a hard balance, and it’s a hard adjustment to spending time with friends and doing all these things that I didn’t necessarily get to do when I was training and competing.”
Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.