Nastia Liukin talks to the media at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame Class of 2019 Induction Ceremony on Nov. 1, 2019 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
When the novel coronavirus began spreading across the U.S., Nastia Liukin headed back to her hometown of Dallas to ride out the lockdown with family.
It didn’t take long for her to realize she wanted to stay there.
Nor did it take much time to see how much the gymnastics community was hurting.
Being around World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, better known as WOGA, the powerhouse gym co-founded by her dad and where she trained to become an Olympic champion herself, Liukin began to understand what gyms around the country were facing as they tried to stay afloat amidst a shutdown while also scrambling to plan for a socially distanced return.
“To think they’re just one of so many gyms out there that are going through this difficult time, it’s like, what can I do to help this community that means so much to me?” Liukin said.
Early on during the pandemic, Liukin restructured a deal on a line of leotards she was designing so a portion of the proceeds would go back to help affected gyms. She wanted to do more, though.
“I kind of thought like, okay, what else can I do?” Liukin said. “I’ve just always been a person that I never feel that it’s enough.”
As it turned out, she had another lever to pull, and earlier this week she announced her namesake charitable fund would donate $100,000, in the form of 10 equal grants, to help gyms facing extreme financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.
“It’s just a scary time because so many of these gyms, especially the smaller ones,” Liukin told TeamUSA.org. “I put myself back in my 16-year-old self and thinking that I possibly might not be able to return to the gym that I’m training at for the Olympics. It’s very scary. So I think just hearing those stories, I honestly wish there was more that I could do to help.”
The daughter of Olympic and world champion gymnasts for the Soviet Union, parents who then immigrated to the U.S. and became successful coaches at their own gym, Liukin was born into the sport, and she didn’t want to lose that connection after her competitive career was over.
So following the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, where she won five medals, including all-around gold, Liukin partnered with USA Gymnastics to create the Nastia Liukin Cup Series. The competition aims to give gymnasts who are just below the elite level a big-time competition experience, culminating in the Nastia Liukin Cup on the same equipment set up for the world-class athletes to use later in the weekend at the American Cup.
Since its founding in 2010, the Liukin Cup and affiliated qualifying events have become a staple on the level 10 calendar.
Less visible, however, was the creation at the same time as the Nastia Liukin Fund, which is administered through the National Gymnastics Foundation and is supported through donations and proceeds from the Liukin Cup. (Liukin herself does not earn any income off the event that bears her name, she said.)
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The fund has awarded grants to various causes over the years. As COVID-19 brought the gymnastics world to a halt, though, Liukin saw an opportunity to make a targeted impact.
“I haven't really done something consistently with the funds on a yearly basis,” Liukin said, “and so I just wanted to figure out what it is that I wanted to do.”
Working with her board, they determined to divide the money 10 ways, to ensure each recipient gets enough to have a meaningful impact. Applications must be submitted by June 1; Liukin and the board will review them and determine the recipients by June 12, and funds will be dispersed by the end of the month.
To be eligible, a gym must have hosted a Liukin Cup qualifier or participant since the series began.
“I thought that’s the perfect way to do it because we’re clearly giving back to the people that have given,” Liukin said.
Liukin retired from the sport after the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and attended college at NYU, graduating in 2016. More recently she was living in Los Angeles.
In her original plan for 2020, a busy summer of gymnastics broadcasting for NBC Sports would be starting this weekend at the U.S. Classic, followed by the U.S. championships two weeks later in nearby Fort Worth.
Instead the commentary has been replaced by grant applications, and she’s in North Texas for more than a business trip.
After originally planning to return home just long enough to ride out the quarantines, Liukin, now 30, has since decided to stay in the Dallas area for good. It’s something she had been thinking about for a while.
“It’s hard to explain, but just being home and being with my family, both my parents and grandparents, I just kind of felt like now was the right time to be back home,” Liukin said.
With the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games announced in March, followed by the confirmation earlier this week that all USA Gymnastics championships for 2020 are off, the elite gymnastics world has been mostly at a standstill.
That’s begun to change, however. Texas allowed gyms to start reopening this week, and WOGA was among the ones to do so, which it did with new social distancing measures in place. Also returning to formal training this week was Simone Biles, who is based out of World Champions Centre near Houston.
It’s the first step on a long road back for Biles and the other 2021 Olympic hopefuls, Liukin says.
“I never took more than, like, a Sunday off, maybe two days at the very most without being in the gym training, and so I honestly cannot even imagine having taken whatever week of quarantine we are on right now,” Liukin said.
Though with the help of her grants, she’s hoping at least some gymnasts can now have a more stable future.
“I just am trying to do the best I can and hoping this little bit can go a long way for some of these gyms,” Liukin said. “I wish I could help every single gym out there, and I encourage those that are able and willing to help, whether it's their local community, whether it's emotional support or financial support, whatever it is that you can do to help small businesses during this difficult time.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.