At 18, Nastia Liukin won the all-around gold medal for gymnastics in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, she reflects on her stellar career and her aspirations.

Nastia Liukin
Credit: Courtesy of Nastia Liukin

Nastia Liukin, 22, has several gymnastics World Championship medals and an Olympic all-around gold medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although she did not qualify at the Olympic Trials to compete in this year's games, Liukin finished each routine with grace and received a final standing ovation from 18,000-plus fans. In mid-July, while promoting Fisher-Price's new Fantastic Gymnastics Dora doll, Liukin set aside some time to talk to about how she started her gymnastics career, her new role at this year's Olympics, and her plans for the future.

You started gymnastics when you were just 2 1/2 years old. How did you get your start? Do you remember it?

Both of my parents were gymnasts -- world champions. I did start at 2 1/2 , 3 years old, but I feel like I was born with a little gymnastics in my blood and ever since I can remember, I've had such a passion for it. I really loved being in the gym, and I loved being in a leotard, being on the trampoline, playing on the bars, all those things. I think it was important for my parents that I did something I loved, but they never pushed me into the sport. They always made sure it was my decision that I wanted to do the sport.

Since both of your parents were gymnasts, did you feel like you had to live up to certain expectations?

I honestly never felt I had to live up to their expectations. I was very fortunate to have them as good role models within gymnastics and outside the sport. When I finally realized that my dad was an Olympic champion, I remember thinking, "I wanna be just like him. And I wanna be just like my mom and be a world champion." I had something to strive for, to do the things that they did.

What were some lessons your parents instilled in you at an early age, in gymnastics and in life?

A lot of the lessons they taught me for gymnastics can definitely apply to my daily life. Lessons like, always set short-term daily, weekly, and monthly goals and not just long-term goals like the Olympics. This helped me at an early age because I always knew I was striving to achieve something and check something off my list. They also taught me to always believe in myself, to never give up, and to always finish what I started. And to keep going after my dreams and goals.

What can other parents do to encourage aspiring gymnasts or athletes?

It's definitely important for parents to make sure that if a child has a spark of interest for gymnastics or another sport, they should encourage it. It's important to exercise and to have a healthy lifestyle, and gymnastics is a fun way to do that. It's good to lead kids on a sports path and make sure they maintain the passion. Parents shouldn't push too hard if it's something kids may not want to be doing.

What did you do to prepare for competition? How did you maintain a healthy lifestyle?

I learned at an early age that whatever you put in your body, you're going to get out of it. My mom always told me to treat my body like a really expensive car, so you have to put expensive fuel in it if you want to get the best results. This stuck with me, and it will stick with me for the rest of my life. Training seven hours a day, six days a week, it was very important to have the right nutrients and to make sure I was eating enough protein to have the energy to get through a long day, and drinking a lot of water made sure I stayed hydrated. I try to eat organic and natural foods and eliminate processed stuff as much as possible.

What's your favorite snack or meal?

I love sushi. I love all kinds of fish, but I love eating sushi, and because I travel so much, it's fun to go to different sushi places. As a snack, almonds are always great to put in a Ziploc bag, and apples with almond butter is another go-to snack that I love.

Nastia Talks About Her Role at the 2012 London Olympics

How do you prepare yourself before competing? Do you have any pre-competition rituals?

I don't really have any rituals, but I do a lot of visualizations. Right before I compete, like the day before, I always visualize my routines in the way that I want to perform them. I think about routines in the way I've done them hundreds of thousands of times back at home in the gym and I try to keep a positive mindset. I always have a positive outlook in all aspects of my life.

In addition to all the medals and accolades, what has this sport given you?

This sport has given me so many amazing opportunities and experiences. I'm teaming up with Fisher-Price to launch the Fantastic Gymnastics Dora doll. I'm extremely passionate about gymnastics and inspiring children everywhere. I hope the doll will inspire kids to try gymnastics, so they'll realize that it's never too early to start setting dreams.

Even though you didn't qualify to be a member of this year's Olympic team, you're still going to London as the athlete representative for the Federation of International Gymnasts. What does this role entail?

Being the athlete rep for the Federation of International Gymnastics is a huge honor for me because gymnasts from all over the world elected me to be the middle person between all the gymnasts and the committee. If there's an issue or concern, a problem that the gymnasts have, it's my job to relate it to the women's technical committee for gymnastics at the Olympics. The committee creates all the rules -- the difficulty level, the bonuses, the code of points. I'll also be doing some on-camera TV work and a few other things throughout the games, so I'll be there for the duration. It's a big role; I take it with a lot of pride and responsibility.

What is your relationship like with the members of this year's women's and men's gymnastics teams? Have you worked or trained with any of them before?

On a professional level, I'm involved with the women's team, but personally we're all great friends and the guys are like our older brothers. In 2008 I was one of the younger gymnasts, so it was nice having people watching out for me. Right now, looking at the five girls competing in London, it's been amazing to see them progress over the past few years and to see their dreams come true just a few weeks ago in San Jose, making the Olympic team. It's something that I'll remember, and I'm excited to cheer for them in London.

Do you have any predictions for this year's winners? Anyone that you're particularly impressed by?

I think all five of them are very impressive. At the last world championship, the team got a gold medal. Jordyn Wieber won the all-around competition less than a year ago in Tokyo, and Gabby Douglas won the all-around at this year's Olympic Trials. It's going to be a very healthy but competitive environment. What's exciting is having one of your biggest competitors training right by your side on the same team.

What's next for you? I read that you'll be attending New York University.

Yes, I'll be moving to New York City in January and I'm excited to go to NYU. I've put school on hold for the past five years while training, traveling, and doing a lot of great things because of the success I had four years ago at the Olympics. But school has been very important not only to me but to my parents, so I knew this would be something that I wanted to do; it was just a matter of time. I think this is the perfect transition period of my life as I wrap up my competitive career and focus on the rest of my life.

What will you study?

I hope to study sports management. That's definitely the plan right now, but anything can change.

I'm sure gymnastics will continue to play a big role in your life.

Absolutely, and with my parents, too. They own three gyms in the Dallas area so it will be a part of my life forever and I couldn't be happier. It's such an amazing foundation to have. Even if kids don't love gymnastics, if they start at any age with some classes, they can learn so many different things -- they can build a lot of character, strength, flexibility, and courage. Hopefully, they can also develop a sense of fearlessness. I started very early, and I had my first competition when I was 6 years old. I've been competing for many years and every single time I compete, a little piece of that moment sticks with me forever.

Photo credit: Peter Larsen

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.