For some US gymnasts, success is a family affair
Gold medalist Nastia Liukin’s father is also her coach. It’s a delicate balance they’ve worked out over years.
In the moments after American gymnast Nastia Liukin won the most prized title in individual gymnastics – the Olympic all-around gold – her coach added an asterisk.Skip to next paragraph
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As of that Friday afternoon, he noted, Nastia still only had two medals from her Olympics – the all-around individual gold and an all-around team silver.
“I’ve got four,” he smiled, counting two golds and two silvers from the 1988 Games.
On Monday night, she caught him, gaining a silver on the uneven bars after winning bronze on the floor Sunday. And on Tuesday, she surpassed his record with a silver for her balance beam routine.
The exchange, however, was a glimpse into the peculiar life of three elite US gymnasts whose coaches are also their parents, combining dinner tables and medal tables. Liukin’s Olympic teammate, Chellsie Memmel, is coached by her father. Jana Bieger, who just missed making the team, is coached by her mother.
For the Liukins, it has been a balance worked out over years, at times huddled over Valeri’s notes, trying to decipher the hand holds and releases for a new routine from his incomprehensible string of letters, at times screaming at each other in Russian.
Yet after training sessions that can sometimes leave father and daughter overheated, the needle of their inner RPM pushed into the red, it is their shared commitment to a single goal that binds them when all else frays.
“We’re both perfectionists,” says Nastia. “I won’t give up until it’s as good as I want it to be.”
After Nastia had won gold in the all-around Friday, a smile of obvious pride began to twist Valeri’s lips: “She’s a tiger.”
In the fulfillment of these Games, the hours invested by both of them in their Dallas gym have taken the fond glow of retrospection.
Nastia recalled the first time her father suggested the uneven bar routine that has now won her two medals – the silver in the apparatus final Monday and the all-around gold, where it staked her to a lead that teammate Shawn Johnson could not catch.
Months ago, Valeri had left out a sticky note for her to find. It was a list of letters: D, D, D, E, D, E, E…
She asked him what it meant. When he explained, her first reaction was: “Wow, that seems really hard.”
It is. With a 7.7 difficulty score, it is tied for the hardest uneven bar routine in the world. Her second reaction was: “I would give everything to do that routine.”
Now she has – Valeri’s tiger loosed on the gymnastics world.
Yet the past few years have not been easy, each acknowledges.