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Nastia Liukin’s Desire To Perform Drives Her To “Dancing With The Stars”

By Brandon Penny | March 16, 2015, 6:05 p.m. (ET)

Nastia Liukin, partnered with professional dancer and five-time mirror ball trophy winner Derek Hough, will make her dancing debut on Season 20 of “Dancing with the Stars” on March 16, 2015. 

Can 20 years of gymnastics experience and five Olympic medals translate into a mirror ball trophy on the ballroom dance floor? Perhaps.

But the bigger question is how well does that gymnastics experience translate when tacking on 16 hours a week in the classroom (plus homework), multiple coast-to-coast flights, learning to dance with two separate partners and filming a TV show?

Nastia Liukin will find out the answer to just that as she makes her debut on Season 20 of “Dancing with the Stars” Monday night at 8 p.m. ET. Liukin is partnered with professional dancer and five-time trophy winner Derek Hough, who has his own hectic schedule to navigate.

Liukin is the 21st Olympian and third gymnast to compete on the show and has a shot to become the fifth Olympian to win the coveted mirror ball trophy. Prior to the show’s premiere, the 25-year-old spoke to TeamUSA.org about the transition from gymnastics to dance, advice from fellow Olympic champions and her weekly routine (or lack thereof).

Fans can vote for Liukin online or by calling 855-234-5604.

What excites you the most about competing on “Dancing with the Stars”?
For me, it’s been almost three years since I’ve competed, competing last at trials in 2012, and I just think I’ve missed that performance aspect of gymnastics. I’m excited about those few moments before you’re about to walk out onto the competition floor and the butterflies you have.

Also, it’s a pretty big challenge just being in school full time still and traveling coast to coast every single week, so I’ve always been up for a good challenge and this is just another one of those.

You definitely do have a packed schedule between a full course load at New York University and shooting “Dancing with the Stars” in Los Angeles each week. Why was it important that you balance both?

I think when I first got the call and the opportunity to do it, I wanted to make sure I could still be in school and not drop a semester because ever since I finished my competitive career that’s something that has been really important to me. I don’t want to lose momentum; I have a year left so I really am hoping to graduate before Rio. Obviously as the Olympic year approaches it’s only going to get more busy and hectic so I didn’t want to put a hold on that, so it worked very well with Derek being in New York. He’s doing a show in Radio City.

When I say works out well it works out well in the sense of us being in New York, but us trying to find the time to actually rehearse is the struggle. I have a second partner Henry who is out here in LA because Derek won’t be flying in until Monday morning of the show. So Henry and I will do rehearsals Saturday, camera blocking Sundays and then Derek flies in Monday morning and we’ll do the show on Monday night and fly back together on a red eye to New York.

That’s exhausting.
Even more so for him. At least I have a few days here to get adjusted to the west coast before flying back to New York.

How many shows a week does Derek have at Radio City?
I think he said he has about 10 shows a week, so I think he has me beat on schedule. I am taking 16 credits and I have midterms next week so that’ll be a challenge in itself. Derek’s show just started this Thursday so they’ve been in rehearsals for that and we’ve been in rehearsals for dancing til 11 at night, and now that he’s in the show it’s at night so we have to find time in the day or the morning to rehearse for “Dancing with the Stars.”

Every day is different, too. We don’t ever have a set schedule. It’s also dependent on how we feel, too. Traveling coast to coast is grueling on your body so we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to stay healthy and also remember to have fun because this is a fun experience. It is going to be a little stressful, for sure, but I’m excited about it.

How will Henry learn the routine?
As soon as Derek and I get our routine down we tape it on our iPhones and text it to Henry. Then he’ll do it with another dancer out in LA and send it back to us and Derek corrects him and explains the steps. Henry gets down the routine in about a day so then when I get out here he’ll know it. It’s not the exact same because every dancer is different so it’s an adjustment, and then I have to readjust on Monday.

How have you handled the adjustment of learning to compete with a partner?
It’s hard for me because I’m used to competing by myself. I’m not used to having a partner so it’s very different in that sense, and also the movements are different. For 20 years of my life, my muscle memory has me doing all the movements one way and it’s complete opposite in dancing, so I almost feel like in the sense that it’s harder to relearn and reteach your body to do something than it might be to learn from scratch.

It’s a little harder than I think a lot of people are thinking. People are saying, ‘Oh, you’re a gymnast — no one else has a chance.’ But it’s also about the votes and to be completely honest, Derek and I have had this conversation a few times, of course being perfectionists and competitors we’re in it to win it but we’re not necessarily thinking about that. It’s important to enjoy the journey and the process, and it’s going to be a challenge but we want to look back at this experience regardless of the outcome and be able to say, ‘Look what we did.’

How does dancing compare to gymnastics?
In terms of comparing gymnastics to dance, obviously as an athlete you’re used to training four to five to seven hours a day and you’re used to taking direction from someone else. As a gymnast I was a different type of competitor. I never really smiled. I was so serious. This is completely different. You’re in character and you have to portray something different. It’s very different in that sense and I think it’s also great because as a gymnast people didn’t really get to know my personality, and I think this is a great way to do that.

You’re friends with a few of the Olympians who have competed on the show in the past. What advice have they given you?
Meryl (Davis) was one of the first to text me after it was announced and I spoke to Evan (Lysacek) as well and they both said they’re so excited for me. They told me to go out there and have fun, and they’ll be cheering me on. I think both of them are going to try to make it to a show. I remember watching both of them. I went to see Evan at one of the shows. It was a lot of fun — all the energy in the ballroom. It’s been the right amount of time to make me miss it a little bit so I think it’s the perfect time for me to do it.

Do you think it bodes well for you that both Shawn Johnson and Aly Raisman made it far on the show?
Yeah. I watched them both, and I haven’t spoken to them but I know they had a really fun time. They tweeted me. I think the competitive drive that not only gymnasts but all athletes have helps a little bit. That’s kind of what Derek said. Obviously Shawn and I were very different gymnasts but he found that similarity in our work ethic and that athlete instinct came out.

What do you hope to get out of being on the show?
I think for me it’s just about the experience. As a competitor, I’m not going to lie and say I don’t want to win, but that’s not the one thing that’s on my mind. I think just the performance aspect and learning how to dance and doing something outside of my comfort zone. I’ve never taken a dance class. I’ve always said if I wasn’t a gymnast, I’d want to be a dancer.

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Nastia Liukin