Nastia Liukin is ready. Ready to trade in her leotards for textbooks. Ready to listen to teachers instead of coaches. Ready to excel at exams instead of gymnastics competitions.
So the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions is kind of like a victory lap for the 2008 Olympic individual all-around gold medalist, who turns 23 on Tuesday. Liukin and her fellow performers – including four of the “Fierce Five” gymnasts from the London Games – have been through 26 cities. After Friday night’s show at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, only 13 are left.
And then? In January, Liukin will move from Dallas to New York City, where she’ll try to start a normal life as a college student at New York University. Or as normal life as one of the most famous gymnasts on earth can have.
We sat down with Liukin Tuesday at Everest Gymnastics Training Center, a Huntersville gym club that was being rewarded with a visit by the champion because it sold more tickets to Friday’s show than any local group.
Q. This is the second time you’ve done a post-Olympic tour. (After the Beijing Games in 2008, she toured with fellow medalists Shawn Johnson, Alicia Sacramone and others.) What are the differences this time?
I was able to be on the creative team for the tour so that was really fun for me. … It wasn’t (run by) USA Gymnastics last time, so we didn’t really get a say in how we wanted to perform, or our numbers or costumes. I feel like now it runs a lot smoother, and the whole show is a little bit more artistic and includes some Cirque du Soleil-type stuff. Last time it was geared a lot more toward younger girls, and now it’s kind of geared at everyone.
Q. I hear you do some aerial tricks while suspended from silks?
Yeah, I just learned it like two days before we started rehearsals. I’ve never done anything like it, so it’s fun for me to step outside my comfort zone. I’m literally like 30 to 50 feet above the ground. I’m used to flipping on the ground and being in control, so at first it was a little scary not being in control of it and relying on a motor raising you above the floor.
Q. I also understand that the crowds are very enthusiastic at these shows, and the girls in particular get pretty loud. Do you feel like a rock star?
Oh, yeah. I’ve done this before, so I know this isn’t normal life, but for some of the (performers), it’s such new territory for them to have thousands of people screaming their names. And we travel by tour buses, the same kind that musicians do … so you get sucked into this lifestyle. I remember after the last tour it was a little hard going back to normal life and being like, “Oh wait, people aren’t really screaming for you every day.” You have to enjoy it while it lasts. Being four years older, I definitely understand that and I have plans beyond this.
Q. What are those plans?
I’m starting school at NYU. I graduated from high school in 2007, and then put school on hold for the past few years as I was training and traveling and just doing a lot of different opportunities that came my way. I’ve lived in Dallas since I was about 3, so I’m excited to venture, again, outside my comfort zone.
Q. What are you going to study?
Sports management. I’ll definitely always stay involved in gymnastics and the Olympic movement, but I think it’ll be good to meet new people and just do something different. I also want to do some broadcasting, hopefully with NBC over the next few years.
Q. What’s your favorite thing about doing these gym visits?
If I’m able to walk away from a gym and at least inspire one girl or one boy, then I feel like I gave back to the gymnastics community. I remember going to (see) tours when I was younger and just being so inspired and motivated to come back to the gym and train hard and say, “One day I want to do that. One day I want to compete in the Olympics.”
Q. What’s it like having little girls come up to you and say “I want to be like you someday”?
I don’t think that’s something you can really get used to. When you’re able to come to something like this and you have kids screaming your name or just wanting to get a picture or your autograph, it’s really heart-warming to know you’ve made some kind of impact on their life. It’s really special to know that what you’ve done in your life (has) inspired somebody, or helped somebody get through something tough, or made them believe in themselves.