By David Ramsey
Nastia Liukin grew up admiring her father’s Olympic gymnastic gold medals at the family home in Texas.
As a child, she embarked on pursuing the most daunting of tasks.
She wanted to win Olympic golds of her own.
This could be the start of a sad story, but it’s not. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics Nastia won five Olympic medals, including two gold. She enjoyed a peaceful relationship with her coach, who doubled as her father. She ruled the gymnastic world with gold in the all-around, a title that barely eluded her father. Valeri Liukin won two gold and two silvers for the Soviet Union at the 1988 Seoul Games.
At 18, she was a celebrity. A huge chunk of the world watched her compete. She had grabbed just about everything she could grab.
On a fall trip to Colorado Springs, Liukin explained how winning and failing as an elite gymnast prepared her for life far from the glitter of Olympic arenas.
She stood at the pinnacle of medal stands with gold around her neck. And she fell, literally, on her face in 2012 while seeking and failing to qualify for the London Olympics.
“I feel like being an Olympian really taught me so much and not only the ‘if you work hard your dreams can come true and anything can happen,’” she said.
“You learn more through the obstacles and disappointments. Life isn’t always going to be like the fun and exciting and the fairy tale moments that you sometimes have at the Olympics.
“It’s also going to be sadness and disappointment and adversity and figuring out how you keep going. And we’re all going to have moments like that in our life. Whether you fall literally or figuratively, you have to figure out how not to give up.”
Liukin decided late to try to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. She was rusty after years away from competition. And she was, incredibly, old for her sport at 22.
A painful moment from her comeback defines her as much as the Beijing medals. In the bars routine at the 2012 Olympic Trials, she fell on her face. While lying face down, she briefly struggled with a decision.
Should she arise to finish her routine? Or flee the mat?
She arose to boldly and joyfully finish the routine, and the crowd responded with a standing ovation. Her father, she later wrote, “was ablaze with pride for me.”
A moment of humiliation instantly transformed to moment of triumph.
“It taught me to not get so down on myself,” she said. “Some things are not in your control. You’re not a failure if you fall on your face. People will still really love you. It really has taught me that.”
After she returned from Beijing, Liukin savored the attention of a nation. She toured the talk-show circuit as guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “The Tonight Show.” She served as guest model on “The Price of Right.” She wrote, at 24, her autobiography. She competed on “Dancing With the Stars.” A million Instagram followers examine photos of her life.
All as a reward for relentless pursuit of gold.
But there’s her average life, too. She refused to allow herself to get trapped in the role of Nastia Liukin, gold medalist/celebrity.
“Every single person goes through transitions,” she said. “I had to work on moving on to being just a normal person. It took time for me to figure out who I was just as Nastia and not as Nastia as Olympic gold medalist or gymnast or whatever.
“It took some time but I also am so proud of what I was able to do and I’m proud to be known or recognized, but I don’t feel I’m defined as a gymnast.
“It was part of my life and part of who I was.”