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Brian Curtis, nbcdfw.com
Texan and Olympic champion Nastia Liukin has her sights set on the London 2012 Olympic Games.
You only have to read Nastia Liukin's very active Twitter feed to see where she's at these days. Full of inspirational quotes interspersed with supportive messages to fellow gymnasts and friends, her daily musings reveal a young woman on a very focused mission: To win the gold again, despite a late start preparing for the challenge.
Taking the gold as All-Around Olympic Gymnastics Champion at Beijing 2008, the poised and charming 19-year-old was a sensation. She appeared on magazine covers and earned big endorsement deals including being featured on the iconic Wheaties box.
In the gymnastics community, she joined the selection committee for the 2011 World Team and launched the Nastia Liukin Supergirl Cup, a competition for some of the country’s top junior gymnasts.
But life felt considerably more chaotic than it used to. The girl who grew up in the gym coached by her father missed being back at "home" in Texas. She didn't plan on taking another run at the Olympics. By December 2011, she had changed her mind.
"I went through a period of time where I was so lost and confused. I didn't know who I was anymore," she says. “London all of a sudden became a huge dream of mine. And I’m working towards achieving that dream."
Now, Liukin, the only child of two former Soviet champion gymnasts, is working hard to get back into her gold medal-winning shape.
“I think it’s more than a full-time job. I come home at the end of the day exhausted. And honestly, I’ve missed that feeling,” she said. “In between my two training sessions, I take a nap now.”
It’s a feeling that gymnasts across the country know all too well. Often times, they’re too tired to lift a fork for dinner, too exhausted to climb into bed so they fall asleep on the couch. Too exhausted, yet too in love to stop.
Seven hours a day, six days a week, 22-year-old Liukin drives to the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Plano, Texas. On bars, her father stands by her side, shouting instructions with each skill she performs.
“Right into the hold, yes… yes, yes,” he says, urging her along.
At first, Valeri Liukin, who never aspired for his daughter to follow in his Olympic footsteps, was skeptical. “You have to prove to me that you really want it, and I will help you,” Valeri says to his daughter. “Otherwise, I’m a very busy man.”
He eventually saw the drive and determination in Nastia and started coaching her once again.
“I don’t have to call her and ask her what she ate, what she did,” Valeri says. She’s so much more responsible right now. I like that.”
He says he holds his daughter to the same standards as the other gymnasts.
“When Nastia walks in the gym, she’s just a gymnast Nastia. She’s not Olympic champion Nastia. In this gym, everybody’s the same,” says Valeri.
They have their work cut out for them as they make up for lost time.
“And it’s kind of like a race against the clock,” she said. “I know time is going by very quickly.”
Liukin’s best shot of making this year’s Olympic team relies heavily on her beam and bars, but new rules only allow each country to send five gymnasts instead of the usual six. That most likely means that the girls selected will need to be more well-rounded than in years past.
Previously, the selection committee has had the luxury to include an event specialist. They may not be as lucky this time around. Plus, the competition is stiff.
“No matter what happens, I ‘m just enjoying this process and I’m enjoying the journey and I’m enjoying, you know, being at the gym every single day again,” she says. “Whether or not I make that team, I just want to know I don’t have any regrets.”
After all, it is something she loves, the challenges and the thrills,such as "the fact that you get to flip in the air, which seems like the closest thing to being able to fly."
Liukin won’t know if she makes the team until right before the Olympic Games, but as long as she puts her best foot forward, she can end on a positive note, after all, she is the 2008 Olympic All-Around Champion, the highest accomplishment in her sport, she says.
“Nobody can ever take that away from me. I’ll always be an Olympic All-Around Champion,” she said.
Liukin makes her first return to competition with the Secret U.S. Classic May 26 in Chicago. Then it’s on to the Visa Championships in St. Louis in the second week of June, then the U.S. Olympic Trials at the end of June where the U.S. Olympic team will be named.