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Families share glow of female gymnasts’ triumph

Victory is doubly sweet for gold medal-winning U.S. gymnast Nastia Liukin: Her gymnast father missed gold by only a tenth of a point 20 years ago. “Hopefully he’ll remember that it took all of his hard work to make me the Olympic champion,” she said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Nastia Liukin says she will never forget winning the gold medal in the individual all-around in the 2008 Olympics. And she hopes it also erases any painful memories her father might have from narrowly missing gold in the same event for the men 20 years ago.

“It was amazing just to be here with him, and exactly 20 years ago he was here competing,” Liukin told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira hours after her riveting gold medal victory over U.S. teammate Shawn Johnson. “He missed the all-around gold by less than 1/10th [of a point].

“So by me winning, I hope that kind of tops that and, you know, he won’t remember those moments. Hopefully he’ll remember that it took all of his hard work to make me the Olympic champion.”

It was at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 that Soviet gymnast Valeri Liukin had to settle for silver in the all-around — although he did grab the gold in the horizontal bar that year.

Still, for all of the inspiration he brought Nastia, an overjoyed Valeri Liukin was reluctant to steal any of her spotlight.

“She just did it herself,” he said.

A family affair
Nastia’s mother, Anna Kotchneva, was also a World Champion rhythmic gymnast. So Nastia had gymnastics in her genes, even displaying some impressive flipping tendencies as a baby.

Even so, her parents were reluctant to get their daughter involved in the sport. “We knew how hard it is,” Valeri Liukin explained. “We wanted something, I guess, better for our baby at that time. But she proved the other way … We’d just look at each other and [say], God gave her the talent, we just don’t have the right to take it away.”

So the family uprooted from Russia when Nastia was just 2 1/2. After a brief sojourn in New Orleans, the Liukins moved to Texas and opened a club called the World Olympics Gymnastics Academy in Plano in 1994, with their daughter an obvious and omnipresent visitor.

Progress came quickly for Nastia. She became a member of the U.S. junior national team at 12 and won the National All-Around title at age 13. She won the silver in the all-around at the 2003 Pan American Games and evolved into a four-time all-around U.S. National Champion, winning twice as a junior and twice as a senior.

Still, winning the gold on Friday — totaling 63.325 against teammate and roommate Shawn Johnson’s 62.725 points — came as a surprise.

“It’s still kind of crazy, and I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” she told Vieira. “It’s been a dream come true, and it’s been such a long journey. Just to finally be here and be at the Olympic Games and to win and to be an Olympic champion, it’s just been the best thing in the world.”

The best thing in the world was somehow missed by her mother, however. A case of nerves had Anna Kotchneva out on the Beijing streets sightseeing, rather than watching the event.

“Nastia and I are very close and I felt like if I’m channeling some good and positive and strong energy, it’ll do her a lot better than if I sit in there,” she told Vieira. “So it worked out OK.”

The only problem for Nastia came when she wanted to let her mom know how it all went — only to find her mother’s cell phone was turned off.

“I called her twice and I just couldn’t get through,” Nastia said. “So then I finally just texted her and told her that I won and I loved her and I saw her a few hours after. And that was the first time I’d seen her since we left for the Olympic Games, so it was a really cool moment.”

History for the U.S.That “cool moment” also marked the first time two U.S. women went 1-2 in the individual all-around event at the Olympics. In fact, Liukin joined Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson (one of her coaches) as  only the third U.S. woman to win the event.

Shawn Johnson said the 1-2 punch was some form of vindication for Team USA’s silver medal showing against China in the team all-around.

“It feels amazing,” Johnson said. “I mean, it just really says to the world that USA is really strong. I think we really made up for the day before. To be a part of history is such an honor, and it just makes you feel so proud.”

Leading up to the event, some experts had placed Johnson as a slight favorite over Liukin. But even though they are great friends and are roommates in Beijing, Liukin said she and Johnson avoided any tension.

“We actually keep a little calendar that we made,” Liukin explained. “We post it on our bed and we cross out each day as it goes by, and looking at tomorrow’s day, it was all-around finals. And we just looked at each other and were like, ‘Can you believe this? It’s actually here.’ That’s what we were kind of thinking about last night.

“But once we’re out there on the floor, we’re supporting each other 100 percent.”

Johnson said that no sense of rivalry between her and Liukin played out even during the lead-up to the floor routine that would ultimately decide the competition.

“Honestly, when I got to floor, I didn’t care what score I got,” Johnson said. “I didn’t care what placement. It was beyond the games for me, and I just wanted to go out there and give the routine of my life, whether I passed [Liukin] or not.

“I mean, I was so proud of her. She’s wearing that red, white and blue, too. So it still meant the world to me. But I just wanted to go out there and give the routine of my life and just finish off my Olympic experience as best as I could.”