(L-R) Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Yang Yillin posing together on the podium after competing in the women's individual all-around artistic gymnastics final at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 15, 2008 in Beijing, China.
When Nastia Liukin reflects on her storied competitive gymnastics career, it’s telling that two of her most defining moments didn’t result in medals.
The first came when she was a first grader, growing up in Plano, Texas, and tagging along with parents Valeri and Anna to their World Olympic Gymnastics Academy every day.
“I didn’t compete Level 5, so this was a Level 4 competition,” Liukin recalled. “I was still learning how to compete. I didn’t place, but that didn’t matter.”
Medals didn’t matter, because she had found her calling. At age 6, she knew this was what she was meant to do.
“Being a gymnast was always part of me, that passion was there from day one,” she said. “I never wanted to leave the gym.”
Far from pushing Nastia into the sport, her parents tried to steer their only child to other activities. Famed gymnasts in the Soviet Union, they knew how unforgiving and heartbreaking gymnastics often could be: Anna, a world champion rhythmic gymnast, lost her chance to compete for a spot at the Olympic Games Seoul 1988 due to illness, while Valeri — a four-time Olympic medalist — missed the 1988 all-around gold by one-tenth of a point to teammate Vladimir Artemov.
“I guess I never had a chance, seeing that my parents were world champions,” Liukin says, laughing. “But it all came from within me. I was in love with the sport.”
The other moment came 16 years later. A then 22-year-old Liukin was competing on her trademark event, uneven bars, at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in San Jose, California. About 25 seconds into her routine, she failed to grab the bar during a difficult release move and took a hard, face-first fall on to the mats. A few seconds later, she got up, adjusted her ponytail, chalked up her hands and remounted the bars, finishing her routine to a standing ovation.
“I got my first standing ovation for my worst (performance) ever,” Liukin said. “Your medals, your victories in life don’t define you as a person. I have absolutely no regrets.
“The very last performance of my career was on the balance beam at the trials, after I fell on bars. I knew I wasn’t going to make the Olympic team, so for the first time in my life, I just looked around the arena and took it all in. And I never just enjoyed a performance the way I did there, because I really felt the moment.”
Famed for beautiful extension and long, lithe lines that showcased her flexibility, Liukin has an enviable competitive record: nine world championships medals, including three individual golds for balance beam and bars, plus a team gold in 2007. One year later, she won all-around gold at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, along with four other medals.
Now, Liukin is being inducted to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 2019, joining fellow gymnasts Mary Lou Retton (1985), Bart Conner and Peter Vidmar (1991), and Shannon Miller (2006).
“It’s quite hard to put into words,” she said of the honor. “Knowing that I’m joining so many athletes that have inspired me so much, to me speaks volumes.”
Liukin’s teammate on the silver-medal 2008 Olympic team, Samantha Peszek, calls Liukin “one of the fiercest competitors” she has ever known.
“To me, she was a teammate that became a sister and now a roommate,” said Peszek, who shares a home in Los Angeles with Liukin. “I’d want Nastia on my team every time. Her work ethic in the gym was always so inspiring to me.
“We trained together, fought together, and really grew up together. We’ve had the best times together, like standing on the gold-medal podium as a team at world championship, and we’ve also shared some really, really hard times together as well.”
Some of those hard times came in the seasons leading up the Beijing Games. An ankle injury limited Liukin to just one event, uneven bars, at the 2006 world championships. Ankle surgery limited her going into 2007, but she competed in the all-around at the U.S. championships, placing third behind good friend Shawn Johnson.
At the 2007 world championships, Liukin placed fifth in all-around while Johnson won the title. Johnson repeated as U.S. all-around champion in 2008 while Liukin settled for second place.
In the media buildup to Beijing, Johnson was the favorite. Two years younger, her routines were more consistent, her tumbling more powerful. She was strong in all four events, while Liukin’s vaulting was, relatively speaking, an Achilles’ heel. It was Johnson’s likeness plastered across the gamut of consumer products.
Being an underdog only fueled Liukin’s resolve. It had been three years — a lifetime in gymnastics — since she won her only world all-around medal, a silver in 2005, but in Beijing she had the meet of her life. In the all-around final, she hit four clean routines, edging out Johnson, who won silver.
“She has a focus that’s so dialed in and disciplined,” Peszek said.
What does Liukin consider the legacy of her all-around gold?
“Going in, I wasn’t the favorite — I wasn’t the most powerful gymnast, and power was really becoming the big thing,” she said. “So, I guess it’s to tell people that even when you’re told you can’t achieve your goals and dreams, that you’re not going to be any good, that it is possible.
“Beyond that aspect, the important part of the medal is that it obviously opened doors for me. I hope to give back and maybe put a little bit of a different spin on gymnastics.”
In 2009, Liukin approached USA Gymnastics with the idea to create a prestige competition for pre-elite gymnasts that would test their skills in a high-profile environment, with television coverage, international-level judges and professional organization.
The following year, the first Nastia Liukin Cup took place in Worcester, Massachusetts. Held alongside the prestigious American Cup, it gives qualifying athletes who may never compete at the U.S. championships or NCAA championships a taste of the big-time. Future stars Gabby Douglas, Morgan Hurd, Ashton Locklear and Maggie Nichols are among those who’ve participated.
Liukin is always present at the event, signing autographs, posing for photos and holding question-and-answer sessions with athletes.
“I tell them, ‘You’ve already qualified, you are the best gymnasts in the entire country, you deserve to be here. So just enjoy the moment,’” she said.
Beginning in 2012, Liukin joined NBC Sports Group as a gymnastics analyst, a role that has since expanded and that brought her to Stuttgart, Germany, this month to help guide viewers through the U.S. women’s team gold-medal performance and the record-breaking feats of Simone Biles.
“I know I’m nowhere close to being an expert in that field yet, but I do think that with every competition I’m gaining experience and learning ways to be better,” Liukin said.
“There is that fine line between being too technical, but also sharing enough knowledge so that (viewers) are getting something out of it. I think in the beginning that was a little bit of a hurdle for me … you can analyze, but don’t have to over-analyze.”
Liukin, who earned a degree in sports management from New York University in 2016, is also in demand as a motivational speaker, and has founded several business ventures including a new holistic skincare line. She’s even managed to carve out time to have a personal life with boyfriend Sam Martin, a punter for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, although she laughingly admits she hasn’t always been the best at obtaining a good work-life balance.
“I have a lot of different goals, and more than anything, I think I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do the things I’m passionate about,” she said. “I’m able to pursue my dreams, and also give back to the next generation.”