1988 Olympic gold medalist Valeri Liukin hugs daughter Nastia after she won the 2008 Olympic all-around title.
While Nastia Liukin was busy competing in the Olympic all-around title Friday morning, mom Anna Liukin was strolling the bustling streets of Beijing. No shopping, Anna told IG, just walking.
The former rhythmic gymnastics champion had watched her daughter compete in Wednesday's team finals, when the U.S. took second to China. But on Friday, when Nastia competed to realize her ultimate dream, the National Indoor Arena wasn't big enough to contain Anna's pacing.
Instead, Anna simply walked, trying to keep her mind distracted during the biggest night of her daughter's life. Nastia's father, Valeri Liukin, was doing his duty as her coach. But Anna steeled herself to be able to provide emotional support if Nastia came away disappointed.
Nastia Liukin in Beijing (above) and Anna Kochneva in 1987 (below).
Anna and Valeri, two well-known gymnastics champions, said they had never wanted their daughter to take up such a demanding and difficult sport. But inside Nastia's small body there was a tiger lurking, Valeri says. She inherited her Russian mother's blonde beauty and lanky figure, and the fierce resolve of her Kazakh-born father. When little Nastia's stubborn insistence on being a gymnast wouldn't break, they relented and decided to help her go as far as she could in gymnastics.
On Friday in Beijing, she went all the way.
In the early afternoon Anna's phone rang with the news of her daughter's all-around gold medal. It didn't come from the National Indoor Arena, but from Anna's father in her native Moscow. Immediately after came a second call, this time from her mother, taking care of the Liukin family home and pets in Parker, Texas.
"We are a small family yet we are really spread out now," Anna explained.
The Liukin family had been divided in Beijing until Friday afternoon. Anna, who traveled to Beijing as a tourist, hadn't been able to see her daughter and husband in the Olympic Village.
Nastia had received 78 text messages by the time the medal ceremony concluded, but the first person she called was Anna, who coached her in those first years before before Valeri took over.
"I would not be here if it weren't for my parents," Nastia said Friday. "They had an enormous influence on me. My dad at the gym — one of the main reasons why I became an Olympic champion. My mom supported me emotionally in the most difficult moments of my life."
Father Valeri, the well-known gymnastics legend, has helped give her the technical help she needed at the gym. Twenty years ago, a few hundred miles away, he had known Olympic disappointment in Seoul, where he finished second all-around by just one tenth of a point. This was the last competition when compulsory and team scores counted along with the all-around final, meaning the competition was decided by 18 routines over three days.
Valeri, who has always said he tries to be dad at home and coach at the gym, couldn't brush away his own Olympic memories.
"It's almost always possible," he said. "But for some reason I suddenly remembered how 20 years ago I lost in Seoul. It turns out, Nastia has corrected my mistake. She, like me, does not like to be the second."
Anna had experienced her own Olympic heartbreak in 1988, when the depth of the Soviet rhythmic team kept her from competing. Though she was the 1987 world champion with the ribbon, only two gymnasts from each nation were allowed to compete. Anna was overlooked in favor of Marina Lobach and Alexandra Timoshenko, who went on to take gold and bronze.
Nastia had been second too often for her own liking. She finished a controversial second at her first world championships in 2005 by a mere .001, even though she mathematically tied for first. Prior to the 2006 Worlds she suffered a serious ankle injury that limited her to uneven bars only, and she sat out the other three events while the Chinese team claimed victory over the defending champion U.S. team. The ankle injury required surgery, and it was a full year before it was close to being healed. After winning the 2005 world title on uneven bars, she was second on the event at the 2006 and 2007 Worlds.
She was second to 2007 world all-around champion Shawn Johnson at both the 2008 U.S. Championships in June and U.S. Olympic Trials in July. Almost everybody had pegged Johnson to finish ahead of Liukin and be the golden girl in Beijing. Some commentators even said that at at 19, Nastia was too old, past her peak.
Vladimir Artyomov and Valeri Liukin, Olympic co-champions on high bar in 1988
But Nastia didn't pay attention, and followed her father's plan to be fully ready at the Olympics in August. In Beijing she looked stronger and sharper than she had earlier in the year. She fell on uneven bars in the qualification and stepped out of bounds in the team final, but there would be no mistakes in the all-around. With steely determination, she nailed every routine.
"I studied her face to see any nervousness, but did not see any," Valeri said. "She is very fragile outside, but inside her there is a tiger. To work with her is not always easy, probably how it is with any athlete who exhibits strong character. She is very strong technically, but because of the injury we did not have enough time to be prepared for the last world championships. Not everything came out well this season, but when I saw my daughter's face before the competition today, I realized the tiger has returned."
Nastia found inspiration in her own parents' faces during the final buildup to Beijing.
"A few months before the Olympics Games I made myself a collage of different photos and hung it up in my room," Nastia said. "There were pictures of my mom, and my dad... I looked at them every day and thought that someday I, maybe, will have an Olympic medal, too."