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Friday, August 15, 2008

Congratulations to Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson for...

Shawn Johnson & Nastia Liukin

...Winning Gold & Silver in
Olympic All-Around Gymnastics

Here's a pretty good article about gold medal winner Nastia, written last May

Upstaging Dad By the Associated Press
Posted Friday, May 30, 2008

There are five balance beams in the gym - and nine gymnasts who want to use them.

Never mind that Nastia Liukin is the reigning world champion on this event. When other girls jump up ahead of her, she stretches and practices skills on the floor, patiently waiting her turn.

Kind of appropriate, really. Too young for the Athens Olympics, Liukin has spent the last few years piling up the heavy metal at the world and U.S. championships and establishing herself as one of the world's best gymnasts.

With the Beijing Games less than three months away, she finally will get her chance to dazzle the world.

"I definitely do dream about it," she said of winning gold in Beijing. "It would mean the world to me. It would be such an accomplishment - not just for me, but my family, my friends, my teammates in the gym."

And it would make for one heck of a story, the kind that could transform an athlete into an icon.

"She does the most beautiful gymnastics I've ever seen," Mary Lou Retton said. "I look at her in complete awe, because she's the complete opposite of the gymnast I was. She's just a beautiful, beautiful gymnast."

Without heat and pressure, though, diamonds wouldn't exist.
After four years at the top of the sport, a severe ankle injury and the spectacular debut of fellow American Shawn Johnson last year had some questioning whether Liukin's time had passed. She has let her talent be her answer.

Behind the strength of a ridiculously hard uneven bars routine, the 18-year-old Liukin has won her first two meets this year - including edging Johnson at the American Cup in March after Johnson fell on vault.

"She proved to the world she's still the same Nastia Liukin as when she was little," said her father and coach, Valeri Liukin. "She's proved all of them wrong. She can still do it, and that definitely makes me proud."

Now Liukin vs. Johnson is the best thing going in gymnastics, a friendly rivalry that will go all the way to Beijing.

The U.S. championships are next week in Boston, followed by the Olympic trials June 19-22 in Philadelphia.

"There was a lot of negative talk," Liukin said. "But it made me a lot stronger."

To fully appreciate Liukin's journey, you have to start in the Soviet Union.

Valeri Liukin was part of the Soviet machine that dominated gymnastics for almost 50 years. His was no bit part, either. He won two gold medals at the 1988 Olympics and was the silver medalist in the all-around, missing the gold by a tenth of a point.

Anna Kochneva Liukin was the world champion in clubs in 1987, and would have competed in Seoul, too, had she not come down with the chicken pox and the measles before the games.

Though the two knew of each other their relationship didn't blossom until a 40-day tour of Australia and New Zealand after the 1987 world championships.

"We spent a lot of time together," Valeri said. "I thought it was a friendship, but a year later we got married."

The couple married in December 1988, and Nastia (short for Anastasia) was born Oct. 30, 1989. Though Valeri was still competing, the Soviet Union was crumbling, and the Liukins feared they wouldn't be able to give their daughter a decent life if they stayed.

Despite not knowing the language, and even less of the country, the Liukins moved to the United States when their daughter was 2 1/2.
"If I was coaching this much in Russia, I would barely be making it," Valeri said. "Most coaches finish at the gym and then go to make money, driving cabs."

They settled first in New Orleans, working at a gym with Evgeny Marchenko, a five-time world champion in sports acrobatics who'd been friends with Valeri since they were 12. A year later, the Liukins and Marchenko moved to Plano, Texas, and opened their first gym, the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy.

Fifteen years later, WOGA is a gymnastics empire. There are three gyms in the Dallas area, with more than 2,500 students. The walls of the lobby at the original gym are lined with pictures of U.S. team members who have trained there, including 2004 Olympic gold medalist Carly Patterson.

"I have so much respect for them for doing that," Nastia said, choking up. "It wasn't even like they were thinking about themselves that much. They wanted the best for me, and they wanted me to grow up and live in the best living situation for their child.

"It's kind of emotional to know that we moved over here with basically nothing, and now we have three successful gyms."

Gymnastics may have been their lives, but it was not what Anna and Valeri wanted for their only child. They knew all too well how hard a life it was, what with the injuries, the long hours of training and the politics that come with a judged sport.

But there wasn't much money early on, certainly not enough for full-time baby sitters. So the gym was Nastia's playpen. Not only did she pick up the tricks Valeri was trying to teach his students by herself, she did them better than girls two and three years older.

Finally, the Liukins relented. As Valeri likes to say, God gave their daughter a gift, and it wasn't right for them to take it away.

"We really never planned on this," Anna said. "We did some piano lessons, and that didn't go over so well."

Hardly a surprise, considering Nastia is a perfect blend of her parents' best attributes. She is a perfectionist like Valeri, yet kindhearted like Anna. She has her father's athleticism, determination and ingenuity, and her mother's grace, beauty and lines.

She is steely and soft, the ideal combination of athlete and artist.

Though Nastia knew her parents had been good gymnasts - Valeri's grips and his high bar gold medal are in a case in their home - it didn't really sink in how good until she got older.

"When I started learning more about gymnastics and the world championships and the Olympic Games, they actually HAVE those medals," she said. "It's not pressure at all. It's motivation, because I want to do what they did."

Liukin was 9 when she won her first all-around title, at the Texas state championships. Four years later, in 2003, she was the national champion, in the junior division.

She was so dominant the next year that, not only did she win the junior title again, she would have contended in the senior division. Only her age kept her home from Athens; a few months shy of her 15th birthday, she was a year too young.

Liukin was just as formidable when she moved up to the senior division in 2005. She won the next two U.S. titles, and her nine medals from the world championships tie Shannon Miller for most by an American.

But two weeks before the 2006 world championships, Liukin severely sprained her ankle during training. She was able to compete on uneven bars, helping the Americans to a silver medal, but the injury haunted her for the next year - in and out of the gym.

"Some days I could do pretty much everything, and some days I could barely walk," said Liukin, who had surgery to remove bone chips from the ankle in November 2006. "That was weird, because I couldn't tell what it was going to do."

Because it was the all-important year before the Olympics, she gutted through the injury and the sporadic training. She didn't miss a single competition, even lending veteran leadership to a young U.S. squad at the Pan Am Games.

But after yet another setback with the ankle a few weeks before the 2007 U.S. championships, she had to scramble just to finish third. Though she helped the Americans to a world title in September - their first on foreign soil - and won a gold on balance beam, she fell off the beam in team finals and dropped to fifth in the all-around after another mistake.

The critics, so glowing only a few months earlier, were particularly harsh. Some said she was too old - at 17. Others said she should give up the all-around and concentrate on uneven bars and balance beam.

"That kind of surprised me that it could turn this quickly," Valeri Liukin said. "It bothered me that people don't understand. Gymnasts are human beings, and injuries are just there.

"It's not that she can't do it any more."

After worlds, Liukin finally let her ankle heal. Having graduated from high school in the spring of 2007, she relaxed, read and spend time with her friends. At Thanksgiving, she and her mother made a quick trip to Moscow to see Anna Liukin's parents and grandparents.
Though Anna Liukin's mother is a frequent visitor to the United States, her grandparents are in their 80s now. They dote on their great-granddaughter - and the feeling is mutual.

"They've always been special to me," said Nastia, who is fluent in Russian. "We want to make sure we go every year, because you never know what could happen. We don't know if that's going to be the last time we might see them."

Healthy again, Liukin and her father came up with a plan to show everyone just how wrong they'd been to count her out. They developed an uneven bars routine that is so ridiculously difficult Liukin is gasping for air by the time she finishes.

Its start value is 7.7, practically unheard of on any event - for men or women.

"We want to be a lot higher, a lot bigger to win by this much," Valeri Liukin said, holding his fingers so only the slightest bit of light shined through.

"You have to take risks now to be a champion."
And, maybe, a star.