Touched by greatness
The daughter of champion Russian gymnasts, Nastia Liukin became a global star of the sport in her own right, winning five medals for the USA at Beijing 2008.
Written in the stars
Anastasia Valeryevna Liukin was born in Moscow on 30 October 1989 with gymnastics in her blood. Her mother Anna Kotchneva was a rhythmic gymnastics world champion in 1987, while her father Valeri was a ground-breaking gymnast, who that same year became the first to perform a triple backflip in the floor exercise. The winner of four medals at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, where he won the team title and an individual gold in the horizontal bar, he was also crowned world champion twice and European champion on four occasions. The family emigrated to the USA when Nastia was two and a half, and lived in New Orleans before moving to Texas, where Valeri set up the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA). “My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter so they just took me to the gym,” she recalls. “I was always running around and on the bars, and that’s kind of how I started.”
The path to glory
To begin with, Nastia’s parents were not keen for her to pursue a career in gymnastics at the highest level, knowing just how much personal sacrifice and training it took to achieve excellence at international level. Her talent could not be ignored, however, and by the age of 13 she had become the leading junior in the USA, going on to win a clutch of gold medals at the 2003 and 2004 national championships. A year after missing out on a place in the USA team for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games because she was ten months too young, she became a senior international and claimed gold in the uneven bars and the balance beam at the 2005 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships. As well as collecting two more golds in the team event and balance beam at the 2007 Worlds, Nastia won five world silvers, nine senior national titles and six golds at the Pacific Rim Championships, all while overcoming an ankle injury that required surgery in November 2006.
Five medals in Beijing
After finally making the USA Olympic team in 2008, Liukin began her Beijing Games by scoring the highest mark on the uneven bars in the team event, helping the Americans to win silver. Two days later she became Olympic champion in the individual all-around, turning in sparkling performances on the four apparatus to take gold from her compatriot Shawn Johnson and China’s Yang Yilin before falling into the arms of her father, who had topped the podium 20 years before her. “I can’t describe how I feel,” she said at the time. In the apparatus finals that followed, the 18-year-old American took silver in the balance beam and uneven bars and bronze in the floor, completing a five-medal haul that equalled the record for a US gymnast at a single Games, set by Mary-Lou Retton at Los Angeles 1984 and matched by Shannon Miller at Barcelona 1992.
23 and out
Voted Sportswoman of the Year in 2008 by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) Athlete of the Year, Liukin called time on her sporting career after her exploits in Beijing. She briefly came out of retirement at the 2012 US Olympic Trials in San Jose, California, but failed to make the team for London, dismounting one last time from the uneven bars to be greeted by a standing ovation from the 18,000-strong crowd. With her career as a competitive gymnast over at the age of 23, Liukin undertook a new role as an athletes’ representative for the International Gymnastics Federation, while also enrolling as a student at New York University in 2013.