Nastia Liukin is among the most decorated U.S. women’s gymnasts in history with a total of 14 Olympic and world championship medals. She won nine medals at worlds, including two golds on balance beam and one on uneven bars, before making her Olympic debut. At the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, Liukin won the individual all-around gold, becoming only the third American to do so, as well as silvers in uneven bars, balance beam and the team event, and bronze on floor exercise. In honor of her 10-year anniversary since winning all-around gold (Aug. 15), Liukin reflected on her journey to Beijing and the years that followed for TeamUSA.org.
“Ten years ago...” sounds so strange every time I say it because it truly feels like yesterday when I was standing on the podium in Beijing, grasping onto the gold medal that was draped around my neck. A surreal moment, for sure.
I still remember the jitters the night before, the pit in my stomach as I was lying in bed, the continuous play-by-play of my routines in my mind. I still remember that feeling when I walked into the arena and the rush of emotions when I received my medal. All I could think of were my parents and the time, effort and sacrifices they put into helping me get to where I was. As cliché as it sounds, they were the reason I made it to that point and I still can’t ever thank them enough.
Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be just like my dad when I grew up: an Olympic champion. In the very early years, I don’t think I even understood what that meant, but I knew I wanted to become one. As a child, every second I spent in the gym was pure joy, love and happiness. Those feelings for the sport never escaped me. There are certain moments we remember in our childhood, and most of those moments for me revolved around gymnastics: at age 9, winning the Level 6 Texas State Championships, then three years later hearing my name being called as a member of the junior national team. Two years after that becoming a world champion, and then finally, at 18, the ultimate dream came true: becoming an Olympian and Olympic gold medalist.
Over the past 10 years, my life has changed so much. I spent the first 18 years of my life waking up, going to the gym and practicing for 7 hours a day, then going to bed just to do it all over again. I didn’t know anything outside of my small world of gymnastics. When it all came to a screeching halt, I was, admittedly, lost.
My days went from pre-portioned regimens of training to a complete lack of structure. Although I was 18, I didn’t experience or have the normal path to late adolescence as most do. After the 2008 Games, I spent a lot of time going on press tours, gratefully yet cautiously, soaking up everything that comes with winning gold. I knew I wanted to compete in 2012, however, I also wanted the freedom of being a “teenager.” Once the post-2008 momentum slowed, I went back to training, but to be honest, my heart wasn’t in it like it had been before.
At the 2012 Olympic Trials, I had the worst bars routine of my entire life, falling (literally) on my face. But, what’s notable about this seeming failure is that, as I sat there, lying face down on the ground, pondering whether to rise to my feet and finish the routine or walk off the mat, I made a decision that would distinctly serve as the defining moment in my life and gymnastics career. I did rise. I did finish my routine. And, for the first time in my career, for the worst routine in my career, I received a standing ovation. Even my father (my coach, toughest critic and also biggest supporter) was ablaze with pride for me.
A few things clicked for me that day. It’s not about the number of gold medals you have, your ratio of wins to losses or the force of your persistence against minimal resistance. It’s about choosing to push on in times of self-doubt, recognizing and cherishing those who stand with you in both good times and bad, and never, ever quitting on a bad day.
As you might imagine, I didn’t make the Olympic team that year. I moved to New York City and attended NYU where I studied sports management. While in school, I was commentating for NBC, attending gymnastics camps and filming “Dancing with the Stars.”
My schedule was very busy, and although I was still connected to gymnastics, I felt very lost without it, at times even feeling depressed. This was the first time I experienced what it was like to live alone, to be on my own schedule, and not to have my next move planned out for me. I never thought about what I would do after gymnastics because I really thought gymnastics would be my forever. I know that is unrealistic, but when all you do is eat, sleep and breathe it, it’s hard to imagine your life without it. I knew I had to find a way to make it part of my next chapter.
Shortly after graduating from NYU, my fiancé, Matt Lombardi, and I co-founded an app called Grander, with a mission to connect the next generation of female leaders with their mentors in business, sports and life. We focus on giving young girls the tools they need to succeed at an early age, providing resources to, what I believe to be, a severely underserved group as compared to their male counterparts. Grander has leaped headfirst into the gymnastics world because of my background, connecting young gymnasts directly to people like myself and my Olympic teammates, college recruiters, food and fitness professionals, and sports psychologists. Over the past few years, we expanded our reach into the world of female empowerment, not only serving young athletes across a wide variety of sports, but also serving girls who dream to be CEOs, trailblazers, scientists and makers of their own destiny in whatever field they may choose. In connection with our app, we’re proud to put on an in-person event called the Grander Summit, which is a day to be inspired by women who have made their marks in their respective fields, gaining firsthand insights into their unique career paths, experiences and key learnings. The Grander Summit is our first step toward our new path of empowering women and young girls of all interest bases, and bringing together a coalition of girlbosses for real, tangible connections that can only be forged in person.
Along with Grander, I’m in the process of building my own brand. I recently re-launched my website, where I focus on fashion, beauty, fitness, travel and much more. I continue to be so thankful that gymnastics has given me the platform I have today. While I have enjoyed all of the opportunities I have received over the last 10 years, the thing that remains most important to me are the people that are in my life. Their love and support are the driving forces behind where I am today. Gymnastics will forever hold a special place in my heart. It was my first true love, and shaped me into the person I am today. It taught me how to deal with disappointment and adversity, imparted friendships and memories to last a lifetime, and provided me with the greatest honor I will ever receive, representing the United States, my country, at the Olympic Games.