Liukin: "I Miss Flying Through the Air"

By RAF CASERT
|  Thursday, Oct 21, 2010  |  Updated 2:40 PM CDT
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BEIJING - AUGUST 17: Nastia Liukin of the United States competes in the women's individual floor final in the artistic gymnastics event held in National Indoor Stadium on Day 9 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 17, 2008 in Beijing, China. Liukin went on to win the bronze medal. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

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When it comes to the heart, there is no doubt where Nastia Liukin will be at the London Olympics -- right in the middle of the gymnastics floor, defending her all-around title.

Whether she'll actually be there, however, is another matter.

In discussing a possible return to competitive gymnastics, Liukin begins with an "It is not out of the question" answer. But that changes almost as quickly as her staccato delivery. Liukin's love for the sport bubbles over so much that even a description of the endless morning-till-night days of ruthless, regimented training soon gets her dreamy-eyed.

Would she do it again? With emphasis, with almost as much conviction as a wedding vow, she says "I do."

"I miss it."

But, make no mistake, this does not amount to an official proclamation.

"I'm the kind of person that if I say something, I want to follow through 100 percent," Liukin told The Associated Press at the world gymnastics championships. "So I am not making any formal announcement."

Note the studious use of the word "formal." She gives herself until Christmas to make a final decision.

Why the big fuss about a champion possibly making a return to top competition? Because women's gymnastics thrives on star appeal -- from Nadia Comaneci to Mary Lou Retton to Svetlana Khorkina -- and Liukin has it in spades.

Her hair a lighter shade of blonde, her heels a spikier version of stiletto, Liukin stands out, literally, among the dozens of gymnasts at the world championships she came to visit.

She talks with a confidence belying the fact she is 20 until the end of the month.

Much of that comes from her record. Beyond the most prestigious title of Olympic all-around champion, she has four other medals from the 2008 Beijing Games. She is also a four-time world champion and nine-time world medalist, matching Shannon Miller's U.S. record. As bragging rights, that counts.

Liukin, who trained in Plano, very much left international competition on her terms, and has been veering in plenty of directions since.

"I have my own clothing line now. It's called Supergirl by Nastia," she says with the matter-of-factness of a superstar cashing in. "I have my own line of leotards as well. GK by Nastia."

She designs clothes, models and has tried her hand at broadcasting. It's meant city hopping, and sometimes she wakes up without an idea where she is.

"It is busy," she said. "It is time consuming."

Yet, gymnastics keeps tugging at her. Even when Valeri, her father and coach, is away she sends him videos of her performances.

Not a thing someone bent on retirement would do.

"It is pretty good, actually," Valeri said, referring to her performances. "I don't know what she's got on her mind. I think I know, but she doesn't spell it out yet," he says, following it up with an in-the-know laugh.

He knows one thing though. If she comes back, "she should stop traveling completely," he said.

And when Nastia enters the gym, the toughest competition is already waiting for her. Dad is also training Rebecca Bross, the U.S. all-around champion and world silver medalist.

"I am on one beam, she is on the other beam doing her worlds routine, and I'm trying to get skills back," Nastia Liukin said of her potential teammate and rival. "OK, this is what you need to be working toward. This is where your next goal is."

She has to ponder her future in a season of comeback talk. Paul Hamm, the 2004 Olympic all-around champion, is already eyeing London and longtime rival Shawn Johnson, the silver medalist at the Beijing Games, is also back in the gym training.

Coming to Rotterdam as an outsider doesn't help, either.

"It is really hard watching this, especially from high up" in the stands in the Ahoy Arena.

"This whole week I stayed at the same hotel as the girls. ... You feel like you're supposed to be part of the team, and competing and everything. And I look down at my shoes, and I have heels on," she said of her vertigo inspiring black shoes only a gymnast could wear with proper grace.

Then she sees Alicia Sacramone, her longtime roommate who also came out of retirement, pumping her fists and jumping with joy on the floor, and the tugging gets even harder.

"This is the first (worlds) that she has been to that I haven't," Liukin said.

And Sacramone can only reinforce Liukin's feelings. Like Liukin, when it is a choice between unbridled freedom or the structure they have been used to since first entering the gym as a kid, the latter wins -- hands down.

"It is nice to wake up in the morning, know what I'm going to do, know where I'm going. It is easier mentally for me to have that than wake up and say, 'I have nothing to do today,"' Sacramone said.

"I miss being structured," echoes Liukin.

All that hard work is no problem for her, not for what it could bring in return in London.

"I miss flying through the air," Liukin said.
 

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