Olympics Rewatch: Nastia Liukin Looks Back at All-Around Gold in Beijing
Grace under pressure. No event in the Summer Olympics defines it better than the women’s gymnastics all-around final. And even if you remember who took home the gold, you’ll still be on the edge of your sofa Wednesday, July 29, as the Olympic Channel's classic programming continues with replays of reigning queen Simone Biles’ 2016 coronation in Rio (8/7c), Gabby Douglas’ 2012 rise in London (10/9c) and Nastia Liukin’s 2008 battle in Beijing (midnight/11c).
“What was cool about that all-around was it was a fight until the very end,” says Liukin, who went head-to-head with U.S. teammate and close friend Shawn Johnson after they joined forces to earn silver in the team final (repeating Tuesday, July 28 at 11:30/10:30c). Now a commentator herself, Liukin had never seen the full all-around broadcast until last April, when NBCSN reaired it as the live sports world went dark. For the occasion, she and Johnson donned their original leotards and met up on Instagram, where they dished on the uneven bars release moves that made their hearts drop; Liukin’s superstitions (she’d only chalk her hands once, no matter the wait); and Johnson’s coach insisting she look away as others competed.
Here, Liukin reminisces with us.
What do you enjoy most about revisiting Beijing?
Nastia Liukin: I really love being able to try to get back into the mindset. I know what happens during my routines, but I love asking myself, "What was I thinking in that moment?" Obviously, there's so much pressure. There's so many expectations, and the nerves are so high. But how was I really able to be so present, so in the moment, and not let any of those things really get me?
And what is the answer? What was going through your head?
For instance, on beam, it was my third event, and I was actually up last. I remember so specifically knowing that I was last, and literally I just watched one athlete after another athlete after another athlete go and have really great routines. The pressure should be getting even more, and the nerves should be getting even higher, but for some reason, I was just so calm and so confident and so at ease that I was just sitting there on the floor—not even on a chair, but on the ground—just watching everybody. [Laughs]
I remember my dad [and coach, ’88 Olympian Valeri Liukin], he started getting more nervous. We even talked about this when we watched it. He was like, "I was thinking, 'Why are you sitting there? You should be getting up and warming up. Your turn's in like four more girls, then it was three more.'" I was just so confident. I don't know. I've never really felt that way in my entire competitive career. Normally, I really hate going last. I'm the kind of person who likes to get it over with. I just was very calm.
When you and Shawn watched the replay back in April, you donned your original leotards. Will we see those again?
Most likely not. It was probably a one and done kind of thing. I prefer to not wear leotards these days. But it was really fun. We were texting each other about it, and she kind of brought up the idea. I was like, "Oh my gosh, that's actually a great idea." Then I went through with it. She was like, "Oh wait, this is actually happening?" I was like, "This was your idea so you can't bail on me now!"
It sounded like she had hers framed. Where did you keep yours?
Mine's at my parents' house, and I was there at the time quarantining, so it was very convenient. She has a few of her leotards framed at her house. She actually had to get it out of the frame.
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Your girl’s still got it. Actually, no, no I don’t 😂 but anyways who’s ready to go back to Beijing tonight with us? Tune in to watch the 2008 Olympic Games on NBC Sports Network TONIGHT! Team Finals at 7pm EST and then the All Around Finals at 8:30pm EST 💞 PS @shawnjohnson and are going live for AA finals :)
You and Shawn had stopped live-streaming before we got to the final rotation. When you finished on floor, a commentator said, "That could be a routine that we're watching for generations." What was that like watching back the actual moment when your dreams came true?
My parents and my grandparents, we all watched the end together. It was really special because my grandparents weren't in Beijing. My grandma was actually in Dallas watching our dogs while we were in China, and my grandpa was in Russia. So he was watching, in 2008, the coverage that the Russian television was broadcasting. So it was a very different experience for him watching it there, which I didn't even think about, but makes total sense. [Like me], my parents hadn't really watched it, either, because they were there.
So it was our first time watching it together, and I definitely got a little bit emotional. I could tell that my dad did as well. Once I finished my floor routine and the final scores came up, basically our whole entire house went a little silent. Everyone wasn't really looking at each other. We were all just kind of thinking, I'm sure, "This is something that we will all remember forever." I think we talked about it for a few minutes, and then it was just like, "Yeah, okay. What's for dinner now?" [Laughs]
It's something that, obviously, we're proud of. But growing up, I was very fortunate and lucky that my parents never forced or pushed me into the sport of gymnastics. My dad's four Olympic medals were never displayed at our house. If you walked into my parents' home today, you would never know that that was our home, and the same with my home here in Dallas. Nothing is really displayed here. Whether they did this on purpose or not, I don't know, but it truly was the most amazing way to grow up. I was so proud, and I thought it was the coolest thing having world [rhythmic gymnastics] and Olympic champions as my parents, but it wasn't really anything that put more pressure on me. When 2008 came around, it was more the media basically being like, "Oh, don't you feel pressure and expectations to live up to what they achieved?" I was like, "I never really thought about it that way."
You've segued into doing commentary. What are the moments from London and Rio that, just as a spectator, you look forward to seeing again?
In London, I had tried to make that Olympic team and didn't. I went over there with NBC in a different role. Rio was my first Games to actually be on the official broadcast team. Being able to watch the team competition, and just see how close the five girls were in London and in Rio, and how united they were—I feel like people don't really realize how close all of us are. Even today, all six of us from the 2008 Olympic team are still so close. We all live in different states now, and we're all in different places in our lives, but we have group chats. We talk to each other at least on a weekly basis. You have this bond together for the rest of your lives.
Obviously with Rio, that was Simone's Olympics. Now I'm very close friends with her, but removing myself from that and just being a true fan of the sport, that was incredible. Just seeing how dominant the United States was in the team competition, and the all-around, and the event finals.
What would you say to the athletes, like Simone, who are now training for Tokyo 2021?
This is such a strange time we're all living in. I really don't know what that's like to have to now re-navigate your entire plan. I guess my advice to them is just to try to take it one day at a time. Because if you start thinking about, "Okay, now I have a whole 'nother year," it can become very overwhelming, and it can become scary. I know a lot of people are able to be back in the gym again, and so now it's just kind of like, "All right, this is our next goal" and shifting the focus a little bit.
Last question, taking it back to Beijing: As you were waiting for your floor score in the all-around final, commentator Tim Daggett said, "If she doesn't [get the score she needs to win gold], I'll fall down dead right here." Have you ever talked to him about that, now that you're working alongside him?
[Laughs] Tim actually texted me when it was on [in April], and said it was so cool to rewatch, and that I was unbelievable. It was very nice of him. And yeah, it's really cool to be able to now work with him. I'm proud to be part of that NBC family, and fingers crossed that we'll all be there in Tokyo being able to continue doing and watching what we love.
The women's team finals replay July 28, starting at 8/7c, on the Olympic Channel. The women's all-around finals follow July 29, starting at 8/7c.