In 2008, few were betting on Nastia Liukin.
Her American gymnastics teammate Shawn Johnson was the favorite to win the all-around gold at the Beijing Olympics. And yet it was Liukin, the 18-year-old daughter of Russian Olympic gold medalist Valeri Liukin, who prevailed.
Four years later, Liukin faced even longer odds as she tried to make the 2012 Olympic team at age 22. No all-around champion had returned for an Olympic encore since Nadia Comaneci in 1980 — and sure enough, Liukin fell short during Olympic trials earlier this month, dropping with a thud from the uneven bars. Like that, the competitive career of one of America's most decorated gymnasts was over.
But Liukin's still on her way to London.
See, a gold medal changes things. When Liukin won gold in Beijing, it opened up a world of new career options: celebrity spokeswoman, fashion designer, model, actress and even tabloid catnip, courtesy of her rumored romance with Olympic gold medal-winning ice skater Evan Lysacek. She'll do some television work in London but will also work behind the scenes as a go-between for gymnasts and their sport's governing body.
Last week, Liukin breezed through Tampa Bay to promote the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions, a noncompetitive exhibition that comes to the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Oct. 28. She and other Olympic gymnasts will take the floor in what she describes as a combination of traditional gymnastics and Cirque du Soleil. During a stop to speak with kids at LaFleur's gym in Tampa, we caught up with Liukin to talk about the London Games, which kick off Friday. Here are excerpts.
So you're going to London for the games. What's your itinerary?
I'm the athlete rep for the Federation of International Gymnastics. When I was competing, I didn't even know that we even had an athlete rep. But since 2009, I've gone to every world championship, and a lot of different meetings in Switzerland and Mexico and Korea. The athlete rep gets a vote for all the rules and everything that they do. So it's a really big position. I'll be at every training and competition for the women, and then doing some other work for TV. That stuff's getting finalized right now, just because we weren't sure if I'd be competing or not.
That seems even busier and harder than in Beijing.
It is! Oh my gosh, especially packing for it. (laughs) I was hoping to rely on just bringing leotards and sweats and two outfits. But packing three weeks of normal clothes, and not wearing sweats and tennis shoes? And it is a lot busier. Even just the daily requests for interviews and different things for the U.S. Olympic Committee — things that you couldn't necessarily do if you were a competing athlete.
But at the same time, it's fun for me to be on the other side of things. I was in Vancouver at the Winter Games, and that was my first time watching it from an outside perspective — but also still an inside perspective, knowing some of the athletes. I think it will be a cool experience for me. I did give it a shot to try and make an Olympic team, and I wasn't able to do that, but now I'm able to go to London and know that I have absolutely no regrets in trying.
Has the Olympic experience been changed for you? Do you think you'll be able to appreciate it as a fan, or will you be too attached to it?
I guess I appreciate it more and more every year. Growing up, the Olympics were always in my blood. My dad had gone to the '88 Olympic Games, and I was around Olympic gold medals growing up, so ever since I realized what that was, I wanted one of my own. And in 2008, I was 18, and achieving my ultimate dreams and goals at the Olympic games. I would have never thought I could win five medals, but being able to do that, of course I was over-the-moon excited. …
There's nothing that can compare to an Olympic Games. I competed in three world championships, and I'm very glad that I had that experience, but none of those worlds could compare to one Olympic Games. You always try to remind yourself that this is just another competition, but when you see the Olympic rings everywhere — and I mean everywhere, on chalk buckets and springboards, on beam bars, in the bathroom — it's hard to forget you're at the Olympics.
Do you pack your medals for a trip like London?
No. They'll stay.
That has to be the No. 1 question you get every day, right?
Yeah, where my medals are? They're at my parents' house.
Who's the most random person to have worn your gold medal?
Worn my gold medal? Oh my gosh, I don't know.
Are your friends too afraid to put it on?
Yeah, I guess. I wouldn't want to wear someone else's medal. I've never worn my dad's medals. Being an athlete, it's just something that you're like, "Oh, that's cool …" A lot of people like to touch them, but random people that have no connection to the world of gymnastics are like, "Oh, sweet, let me put that on!" I'm like, "Ooooh-kaaay … just be careful …" It's not just a medal; it's 20 years of hard work in that little piece of metal and ribbon. What lies behind it is more important than the actual medal.