U.S. Gymnast Claims Father's Missed Medal: Interview with Nastia Liukin

With her medals draped around her neck, gymnast Nastia Liukin, a five-time medalist in Beijing and Olympic champion, looks every bit the part.

At 18, this Russian-born American is the daughter of Olympics and world-champion gymnasts. This week, she became a star in her own right, by winning the women's all-around gymnastics finals.

Twenty years ago, at the Seoul Olympic Games, Liukin's father, Valeri, lost the gold in his all-around finals to a fellow Soviet by one-tenth of a point. He now says his daughter "fixed his mistake."

Liukin says she couldn't have gotten here without him.

Supportive Father

Many competitive athletes are motivated by famous role models and untouchable world records, but Liukin is inspired by those in her closest circle, including her Olympian father and her best friends.

She told ABC News in a one-on-one interview that she gets her determination and willpower from her father, who won four Olympic medals -- including two gold -- at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, competing for the former Soviet Union.

Liukin's mother, known then as Anna Kotchneva, was the world champion in rhythmic gymnastics in 1987. Watching old videos of Mrs. Liukin on YouTube, it is clear that her daughter inherited her graceful lines from her mother.

In addition to being genetically blessed, Liukin benefits from having her father double as her coach – making her career a true family pursuit. Liukin says her father is a "tough coach," but after she hops off the beam and uneven bars, he is just a dad who happens to be both her coach and an Olympic champion, too.

"To share that Olympic gold with him made all the difference in the world to me," Liukin told ABC News today. "For him to be able to be here with me, he's the one who'd gotten me to this point. Without him I know I wouldn't have accomplished what I have."

The success of Carly Patterson, the 2004 U.S. national champion and Liukin's best friend, also inspired Liukin to chase gold in Beijing.

At the U.S. Senior Nationals four years ago, Patterson scored 76.450 to take home gold. Liukin, who was 14 at the time, won the junior level with 75.950, a score that would have placed her third at the senior level -- allowing her to go to Athens if she were old enough. Because gymnasts are required to be 16 to compete at the games, Liukin stayed home.

"I feel like when Carly won, she was my teammate and best friend, and seeing the things she was able to do and see, that motivated me. So four years ago I said, 'I want to do that too,'" Liukin told ABC News.

With her goal in mind, Liukin aimed for the Beijing Olympics four years later. In 2004, she told the Dallas Morning News, "This is [Carly's] time. It'll be my time in 2008."

And 2008 was her time indeed.

In Beijing, Liukin has picked up five medals of every color, including a team silver medal and her all-around gold -- tying Shannon Miller and Mary Lou Retton for the most decorated American female Olympics gymnasts ever.

Standing atop the medal podium with the women's all-around gold around her neck, Liukin bit her lip to fight back her tears. As the notes of "The Star Spangled Banner" echoed in the National Indoor Stadium, she flashed her trademark smile.

"The gold medal just felt so amazing," Liukin said today.

"I'm still kind of in shock. I've achieved my biggest dreams in my entire life, so to know that it's finally happened is a dream come true."


It is a dream that Liukin has shared with her celebrated teammate Shawn Johnson every step of the way. They are roommates at the Olympic Village and have shared the medal podium four times (team, all-around, beam and floor exercise) in Beijing. Together, they have won eight medals for Team USA in gymnastics.

"We are great friends and we get along really well," Liukin said. "You know, out there on the floor we're very serious and we're focused on what we're doing. But if you catch us outside, we'll just be laughing and having a good time and not serious at all. We get along great."

Counting down to the women's all-around, Liukin and Johnson were as close as competitive teammates could be.

"We crossed off each day every night before we got in bed. The day of the all-around, we said, 'Wow, it's finally here,'" Liukin recalled.

"We could not fall asleep that night and we just rolled around trying to get to sleep."

When Liukin and Johnson hit the gym the next morning for the all-around finals, they didn't check their friendship at the door. But the harsh reality of competition remained: they knew only one could walk away with the gold.

"We were both supporting each other 100 percent…[but] at the end of the day there can only be one Olympic champion. We were hoping…we would go one-two in the all-around and that's exactly what we did," Liukin said. "We were hoping we made our country proud."

When "The Star Spangled Banner" played for Liukin that day, Johnson hugged and congratulated her teammate and roommate.

"[Shawn] just told me congratulations. I know she wanted it bad too and I can only imagine being so close to it," Liukin told ABC News.

Liukin was fully aware of what Johnson might be experiencing on the second step of the medal stand.

"I kind of experienced the same thing in 2005 at the world championships," Liukin said, referring to her second place finish to American Chellsie Memmel. "I was [one one-thousandth] from winning the world championships in the all-around and I think throughout these years it's made me stronger and just made me want to work harder."

Going Home

Liukin is headed home to the United States tomorrow. Although she's not sure what the future will hold, gymnastics is still in the picture.

"I really hope my gymnastics career doesn't stop from here. I'd love to continue gymnastics for as long as I can," Liukin said. She plans to compete in next year's world championships.

Liuking has won nine world medals, tying Miller for the most by an American gymnast. If she wins medals in next year's world championships, which she indicated she plans to attend, she would break Miller's record with 10.

A glamorous, high-powered career beyond gymnastics might also be in the cards for Liukin. A big fan of the television hit Gossip Girls, Liukin loves fashion and is entertaining the idea of an acting career.

Liukin told ABC News, "I would love to get involved in some acting, modeling or fashion."

A leap from the balance beam to the catwalk is certainly within the realm of possibility. Liukin's elegant, ballerina-like image already adorns the sides of ATMs on the Olympic Green, accompanied by the word "destiny" in Chinese. Liukin can also be found leaping across an Olympic-edition Visa card.

"It's definitely been the time of my life so far and I can only imagine what's coming up."