From Russia With Love
Sunday, July 27, 2008
When Nastia Liukin arrives for competition at the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing, she will remove her warmup suit, emblazoned emphatically with the letters "USA," and compete in a red, white and blue leotard. "This is a very typical American kid," said her mother, Anna.
Now 18, Liukin scoots around the Dallas suburbs in a charcoal BMW, shopping at the mall and texting her friends. Superficially, the most atypical aspect of Liukin's life is her status in the arena of gymnastics, in which she is a world champion, perhaps the world's most graceful performer on the uneven bars, and next month a contender for multiple Olympic medals, including the all-around gold.
But as Liukin leaps to grab the bars in Beijing, bedecked in those patriotic hues that will have NBC's cameras dutifully following her every move as a marquee American athlete, she will do so with a sense of history and pride that differs vastly from that of teammate Shawn Johnson, the Iowan daughter of Iowan parents who is the all-around favorite. Anastasia Valeryevna Liukin was born in Moscow in the fall of 1989, just as the Soviet Union faced collapse. Her mother wasn't just another pretty Russian face, but a world champion rhythmic gymnast, a product of the Soviet athletic empire. Her father, Valeri, wasn't simply the man who had married Anna Kotchneva, but a true athletic hero, a Kazakh who is the owner of four medals -- two gold, two silver -- from the artistic gymnastics competition at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Typical American kid? Nastia Liukin speaks fluent Russian and relishes her trips to visit her grandparents and great-grandparents in Moscow, where she said the shopping, if a bit expensive, is unparalleled. She learned to write in English before her parents, occasionally teaching them their ABC's through her homework. And more than any of the six young women on the American team, she has a background in her sport -- albeit one from another country in another era -- upon which she can draw.
"I would never trade being Russian, deep down, for anything," Liukin said. "But I do feel, I guess, American, because I compete for the U.S., and I would never trade that. It's kind of like, I'm happy and I'm proud of who I am. I'm proud of being Russian, but I'm proud to compete for the U.S."
Here, then, is that typical American kid. She speaks without a trace of the accent that thickly marks her parents' speech. In a way, too, their experience must seem foreign. Yes, she says she gets some of her lines from her mother, spindly arms and interminable legs that defy her 5-foot-3 frame and provide the beauty in her bars routine, the most difficult in the world. And sure, she is aware of her father's accomplishments at the Seoul Games, where he helped the Soviet team to the gold and won an individual gold on the high bar.
But when the Liukins moved to the United States in early 1992, Nastia -- her lifelong nickname, even as kids in elementary school occasionally called her "Nasty" -- was just 2 1/2 . Anna and Valeri, who finally was considering retirement, wanted to center their lives on gymnastics, even as their competitive careers were ending. Traveling worldwide, they had heard about gymnastics schools, clubs run by people who made money by teaching what they loved. So they packed up and headed to, of all places, New Orleans -- new country, new jobs, new life, to say nothing of new adjustments.
Anna remembers one of her friends, a coach at the gym at which they worked, greeting her one day with, "What's up?" It sent Anna scurrying home to her Russian-English dictionary, which only led to greater befuddlement. "I mean, it's slang," she said. Within their first two weeks in the United States with their young daughter, a friend brought the Liukins to the French Quarter. There, they took in Mardi Gras.
"I look at Valeri going, 'We going to raise kid here? I don't know how to do it,' " said Anna, just 22 at the time. "I was young enough to start with. That was an eye-opener. I thought the whole country was like this."
The Liukins found out the whole country wasn't like that, and they settled into a routine. After 18 months in New Orleans, they moved to the Dallas area. Valeri saved some money, then founded the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA) in Plano, Tex. The Liukins' intentions were to train other children, to possibly build Olympians. They toted Nastia to the gym as an afterthought because they could not afford child care.
"We know what gymnastics is about, what it takes," Valeri said. "We know all the travel, all the time in the gym. We were very busy when we were gymnasts, and we just jumped into gymnastics again. We kept moving ahead, no time to think. But we didn't think that's what we wanted for our daughter."
Though Nastia mimicked the routines her parents were teaching older children, Anna and Valeri said they not only hesitated to push Nastia into gymnastics, they pushed her away. First came piano lessons.
"I didn't like it," Nastia said.
Said Anna, "It stopped fairly fast."
Nastia kept tumbling. Her father, with all his experience, couldn't help but notice that she both liked it and, even at 5 or 6, had potential.
"She was flexible," he said. "She was able to do routines without coaching that the girls I was coaching couldn't do."
So the Liukins gave in.
"When we saw that she really liked it, it was a sacrifice on our part," Anna said. "But you can't take away something that you can give to her. It wouldn't be fair on our part. I think it would be way too selfish."
Thus, under her parents' tutelage, Nastia began training. WOGA, too, established itself. Valeri Liukin's partner, former Russian gymnast and Latvian national coach Yevgeny Marchenko, helped found the gym and recruit from the 32 schools in Plano. Four years ago, a Marchenko pupil, Carly Patterson, took all-around gold at the Athens Olympics. Now, as she tries to forge a career as a singer, Patterson can share thoughts with Liukin. Earlier this summer, she gave Liukin a bracelet on which were imprinted four words: think, believe, dream, dare.
"It's nice to have somebody there who's been through it all," Liukin said.
Her parents, of course, have been through it all, too. Yet they are not yet used to it. As Nastia's coach, Valeri came up with the unmatched uneven-bars routine. Of the 10 skills that count toward the starting value -- half the mark in gymnastics' new two-tiered scoring system, which rewards execution and degree of difficulty -- Liukin counts only "D" and "E" level skills, the two most difficult categories. Both coach and athlete say Valeri pushes his daughter in the gym just as he would any of his pupils.
But there is, too, the parental part. During competitions, Anna often becomes so nervous she departs the gym when Nastia performs. At June's national championships, she wandered around Boston, "just a little sightseeing," though she says if Nastia expresses a desire that she stay and watch, she does. At least she has the option.
"She can leave," Valeri said, "and I can't. . . . I am nervous, of course. How could you not [be]?"
Should Liukin perform her bar routine flawlessly, there will be no need for jitters. At the national championships, she twice scored 17s, unprecedented for an American. Though her performances at trials were far less fluid -- marked by significant errors the second night -- she will be expected to medal in Beijing. In addition to the bars and the all-around, she also is a contender for a medal on balance beam; vault is her weakest event.
"Nastia is a special gymnast, excellent technically," U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said at trials. "We have great hopes for her. She can do great things."
At trials, when she finished behind Johnson in the all-around competition, Liukin heard the screams from the crowd as she warmed up. "Nastia! Nastia!" came the shrieks from tweens, and she would occasionally look up, smile and wave, acknowledging her fans.
Forget that they might not know her full name or from where she came. The daughter of Soviet legends will compete for them, for the United States. She wouldn't dream of it another way.
"I'm proud of my name," she said. "I'm proud of who I am. I would never change or wish for anything different than who I am."