Before the Olympics in Beijing, then-18-year-old gymnast Nastia Liukin placed three images on her vision board: the Eiffel tower to symbolize a trip to France she wanted, a BMW and the 2008 goal medal.
“You put the things you want to achieve and accomplish on it,” she said. “A few months before the Olympics they released what the Olympic medals would look like. And so I found them, I Googled them and I printed off the gold, silver and bronze.”
As students at the Social Planning and Events Committee Connaissance event in Bodek lounge learned, the 2008 all-around champion’s road to the podium wasn’t easy. Liukin shared the story of her road to winning gymnastics’ pinnacle event with a group of about 50.
“So many people have asked me what was that feeling like when you’re getting that gold medal and your country’s flag is being raised, and the National Anthem is playing and honestly in my mind, I couldn’t even think one thing straight,” Liukin said of placing first in the all-around competition.
Her story began when her parents, both of whom represented the Soviet Union as gymnasts, moved to the United States when she was two years old to open up an Olympic gymnast training academy.
After hanging around the gym for almost 10 hours a day, Liukin claimed her parents noticed her genetically inherited talent.
“They honestly didn’t want me to do gymnastics at that very high level because they had gone through it all the way up to the top,” she said. “They knew how hard it was, the injuries, the obstacles, everything you had overcome. But I knew at an early age that is what I wanted to do.”
And her career took off from there.
While Liukin dominated the gymnastics world at a very young age, she had to watch as her teammates — who were at least 16 years of age, like 2004 all-around champion medalist Carly Patterson — went on to achieve Olympic glory.
“[Liukin] puts a good name to the sport,” Penn gymnast and junior Laura DiPaolo said. “We don’t realize how unbelievable it is that she was on the national team when she was 12 years old, how unbelievable it is all that she accomplished at such a young age.”
When her time had finally come, Liukin suffered a devastating ankle injury. Using her competitive drive as fuel, she used the negative press claiming she was “over the hill” at age 17 to get back on track towards Beijing.
“I was so upset thinking for so many years they had supported me and everyone was really encouraging me and just because of one injury they had thought my career was over, as if no football player or no other athlete has ever had an injury in their careers,” she said
And obviously that support and hard work paid off. Liukin beat out friend, teammate and Olympic village roommate, Shawn Johnson (who took second) for the all-around title in Beijing.
Liukin shared her pre-competition behavior from that fateful day. When the color of her leotard, the way she did her hair, the dream she had the night before all fell in her favor, Liukin was confident the gold was within reach.
“When she was talking about all the weird stuff she does every meet, that is actually so gymnastics,” DiPaolo said. “It was pretty cool. She’s awesome.”
Since the summer of 2008, Liukin has enjoyed the perks of the limelight. In 2009, she won an ESPY award for Best Female Athlete and has recently appeared on the ABC Family show “Make it or Break it.”
“I think I’ve grown up over the past three years more than I have in the past 21 years combined,” she said. “I think going into the future, you always have to set new goals for yourself. And that’s kind of been the hardest thing for me, trying to figure out what I’m going to do next.”
Although she claims she would never have the patience to become a coach, Liukin continues her involvement in the sport. She hosts a competition called the Nastia Liukin Supergirl Cup for up and coming gymnasts.
“It’s for girls that might not ever get that opportunity to compete on a podium or on a world level,” she said.
While Liukin is still deciding about whether or not the London games in 2012 are in her future, she has already had a trip to Paris, a BMW and a gold medal to call her own.