Nastia Liukin came prepared to the June 2012 Gymnastic Olympic Trials. Armed with three silver medals, one bronze medal and the coveted title of All-Around Gold Medalist from the 2008 Beijing Games, Liukin was the gymnast to beat.
She stepped up to the balance bars and paused three seconds at the base before launching herself through the air, catching the bar in a firm grip and then thrusting herself in a straddle position above the bar.
She whirled around four times, perfectly alternating between single-hand moves and full rotations. She next headed into a double twist off the bar, spinning with precision. As she finished the move, her eyes homed in on the bar and she moved midair to grasp it. But she fell short and face planted on the mat below.
In that one instance, the five-time Olympic medalist’s career was over.
But Liukin got back on the bars and completed the routine. When she finished, 17,000 people in the audience stood in the Olympian’s career-first standing ovation.
“It was just a really heartwarming moment for me knowing that they weren’t cheering for my performance, but more for my athletics career as a whole,” Liukin said.
Fans across the world and young gymnasts everywhere watched in shock. Hallie Ruttum, a young competitive gymnast from Portland, Ore., with Olympic dreams at the time, watched as her idol crashed to the mat.
“I remember watching that, but that was so heartbreaking,” Ruttum said.
Liukin left the world of competitive gymnastics that year, retiring at 22. Since then, she’s worked as a TV commentator for sporting events, taken classes at NYU and been in her fair share of interviews and commercials. But Liukin now finds herself in limbo, searching for a new career.
Liukin wasn’t ever really sure if she’d be able to compete in a second Olympics. After the 2008 games, her schedule was packed with commercial spots, interview slots and endorsement and fan signings. That left little time in her schedule for the seven-hour-a-day training routine she’d been doing since she was a child.
But when Liukin left the Olympic victor spotlight, she faced with the same question thousands of former Olympians face every four years.
“I achieved my biggest dream and goal at just 18 years old, and I left thinking, ‘what do I do now?’” she said.
Tervel Dlagnev of Arlington asked himself the same question after finishing fifth in wrestling at the 2012 Olympics. He and other athletes are aware of their expiration dates.
“You start to get a pretty good sense of it,” Dlagnev said. “My plan right now is just to take it year by year. If I still feel like I’m getting better, I might keep going.”
That’s how Liukin felt from 2008 to 2012. She still had a chance to keep going. With that, she decided to return to the gym and compete in the 2012 trials.
Those trials were the final low of a long Olympic journey that started when she moved to Dallas from Russia at the age of two.
Championships are a Liukin family tradition. Her parents, 1988 Olympic medalist Valeri Liukin and 1987 rhythmic gymnastics world champion Anna Liukin, moved to DFW and opened gymnastics program WOGA, World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, in Plano.
It was at that facility that Liukin would spend seven hours, six days a week preparing for competitions.
Her best friend, Nina Kim, met Liukin when she was at WOGA. Even at age 12, the outgoing, uninhibited Liukin was the first one to greet 15-year-old Kim to the gym where Olympic hopefuls spend their days.
“I was really nervous because it was my first time there, and all of the Olympians train there,” Kim said. “She was one of the first girls to come up to me. I probably came off as kind of standoffish, but I was excited to meet her.”
When she wasn’t at the gym, she was at her school in Plano, the Spring Creek Academy. The school for the “highly motivated, gifted and talented students” has half days so that students like Liukin have time for their passions.
If you didn’t know what she did after her two-and-a-half hours of class each day, you might never imagine she was a future Olympian. At least, her sixth grade history teacher, Erin Thomas never considered her as such.
“At school, she was focused on school,” Thomas said. “That type of kid, like her, when they are at our school, they are allowed to be just themselves.”
Liukin did not achieve just at the gym, but also in the classroom, Thomas said.
“She always seemed successful at everything she did,” she said.
Liukin attributes her successes to constant goal setting in everything she does. Her parents instilled that drive and self-accountability that led the gymnast to set daily, weekly, monthly and even lifelong goals (like going to the Olympics) and constantly remind herself of them.
“You should never stop setting dreams and goals for yourself,” Liukin said. “Even outside of athletics, there was always something I was striving to achieve.”
So when Liukin didn’t achieve her goal of going to the 2012 London Olympics, she moved onto the next one: graduate from college. She is now enrolled as a sophomore at New York University, majoring in sports management. The 24-year-old who has always lived by a set schedule wants to start setting that schedule herself.
“My career and my life has been in someone else’s hands ever since I can remember,” Liukin said. “I wanted to be a little more hands on with my career and make more decisions on my own and not rely on someone else.”
She’s started making those decisions on her own. She’s designing her own sports clothing line, commentating at gymnastic competitions, hanging out with Kim, who’s remained her best friend, reporting for NBC during the Sochi Winter Olympics, and oh yeah, going to class as a full-time student.
“It’s not easy at times, but I think training seven hours a day and still going to school at the same time group up taught me how to spend my time,” she said.
She and Kim make the most out of brief moments in between busy periods.
“We don’t have to go the mall or go sightsee or anything like that,” Kim said.
Her favorite recent memory occurred this weekend as the two flew from Greensboro, N.C. The two chatted so much during the safety demonstration that they were scolded by the flight attendant.
“She can be so silly, which I love, but also she can be very serious,” Kim said.
Liukin used to be serious about winning medals, but now she’s just as serious about her new career. She’s set her mind on graduating from college and going into broadcast journalism.
“Life isn’t always about winning gold medals or being on top,” Liukin said. So when Liukin heads to the 2016 Olympic Trials, instead of facedown on a mat, she will be watching a new generation of Olympic hopefuls from the comforts of the press box.