Anna Liukin paced downtown Indianapolis last Saturday, too nervous to watch daughter Nastia's gymnastics meet in person. Soon Anna's cellphone buzzed with a text message: HEY, MOM, I WON. LOVE YOU. Minutes later, as Anna rushed to Conseco Fieldhouse to watch Nastia, 15, claim her first three U.S. senior national gold medals (bars, beam and all-around), the phone rang with the voice of Nastia's father and coach. "I don't know how she did it," Valeri Liukin reported.
In this family, claims of athletic ignorance will never fly. Anna was 17 when she won a world title in rhythmic gymnastics in 1987. A year later Valeri won two gold and two silver medals for the Soviet Union in gymnastics at the '88 Seoul Olympics. Nastia was two in '92 when the couple moved to the U.S. Now their daughter is bringing timely new life to the sporting fortunes of their adopted homeland.
Not a single gymnast from the 12-member U.S. team that thrived at the Athens Games competed in Indianapolis. Carly Patterson, the Olympic women's all-around champ, has a sore back. Paul Hamm, the men's all-around champ, and his twin brother, Morgan, are taking a break from the sport to concentrate on their studies at Ohio State. Gritty Blaine Wilson, 31, finally retired last week. With headlines in USA Gymnastics ads asking the question WHO'S NEXT? Liukin's emergence has the gymnastics community buzzing. "This is the special one," says former national team coordinator Bela Karolyi. "The parents bring the genes; Nastia brings the desire."
In 1994 the Liukins opened World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Plano, Texas. They were content to have Nastia play rather than compete--Valeri recalled the 16 broken bones he suffered in the sport and the arm sling he tried to hide in his wedding pictures in 1988. But their plan didn't work. "Kids would struggle to learn skills," Valeri says, "but Nastia just watched and, with no help, did them perfectly. She basically enrolled us to support her."
As Nastia improved, she drew from her mother's elegance and flexibility and her father's tenacity. Valeri was the first gymnast to perform a triple backflip on floor; last month Nastia became the first American to perform a single backflip with four twists. Though this quad twist is her signature, her best event is the uneven bars, for which her lean, straight body line is perfectly suited. "Make people want to clap for you," Valeri has told her.
Nastia won five medals at the 2003 Pan-Am Games but did not meet the minimum age requirement (16 during calendar year 2004) to qualify for the Athens Games. "She would have made that team," says five-time Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci, "and been a sensation." Instead Nastia sat in a Texas restaurant with 50 teammates and coaches, watching Patterson, a teammate from the Liukins' academy, win the all-around crown.
Nevertheless, Nastia did get some airtime during the Games. A year earlier Adidas had approached Comaneci with an idea for a commercial. They asked for names of young gymnasts who could emulate her grace and precision. Liukin was the only one on Comaneci's list. The ad featured Nastia and a superimposed young Nadia completing bar routines side by side before Comaneci nodded approvingly at Liukin. Nastia also has a brief speaking role in the Jeff Bridges film Stick It (scheduled for a 2006 release), in which she plays a champion gymnast.
That's a role she confirmed in Indianapolis. On Thursday, Liukin slipped to third place after a botched balance-beam dismount. "You're not a machine," Valeri told her after the miss as Nastia waved him off. Her mother had more words of wisdom that night. "Failure is a foundation for success," Anna told Nastia. Nastia rolled her eyes and invoked her favorite Plano native. "Would Lance Armstrong be O.K. with that?" the daughter asked.
On Saturday, Nastia rebounded with superb routines on bars (9.766) and beam (9.8) to overcome Chellsie Memmel, the first-day leader. Afterward, Karolyi passed Valeri and offered congratulations. "Just like her father," he said.
"Really," Valeri answered. "Think I was this good?"