HUNTERSVILLE – Gymnastics royalty swooped into a crowded gym and delighted a couple hundred aspiring stars.
Nastia Liukin, a gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympian and former world champion, visited Everest Gymnastics on Jan. 14 to offer advice and autographs to wide-eyed youngsters. It was the second of four stops on her whirlwind afternoon tour promoting the Nastia Liukin Cup competition Feb. 28 in Greensboro.
Liukin, 24, was the all-around champion at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. She won nine World Championship medals, five Olympic medals, two U.S. all-around titles and two American Cup all-around crowns.
“It was amazing because I was an inch close to someone famous,” said Emma Dulin, 9, of Davidson. She and friend Mallory Niekro, 8, snagged Liukin’s autograph on a promotional poster.
Everest’s massive gym was a beehive of activity before Liukin’s arrival, with girls of various ages practicing tumbles, tucks and splits. They worked on uneven bars, ropes, balance beams and mats.
Then they all stopped, got real quiet and cheered as Liukin, wearing black pants, black boots and a gray USA pullover, walked in. Liukin gave a quick pep talk, which included tips:
• It’s important to set goals for yourself. Not just long-term, but short-term goals like daily and by the month.
• Never give up on a bad day. If you have a bad day, keep going until you have a good day. Everyone has a bad day, but you can’t throw your hands up and say `I quit.’ Not only in gymnastics, but for the rest of your life.
Liukin then took questions from the young gymnasts.
• What event was hardest for you? “I was always scared of the vault. But you’ve got to trust your coaches. And use visualization. See yourself doing it.”
• What was your greatest memory? “Winning the all-around (Olympic) gold medal in 2008. The flag was being raised and I had tears in my eyes. I realized my biggest dream had come true.”
• Did you ever get nervous? “Yes, at every competition. It’s OK to be nervous.”
• What do you like away from gymnastics? “I have four dogs and I like to read. Relaxing things.”
• What was your favorite competition? “I liked the bars and the beam. But you can’t think about falling. When you think about it is when you usually fall.”
Liukin treated the rapt audience to autographs. The girls offered photos, gym bags and other items. They were inscribed “Nastia” and dotted with a heart symbol.
Liukin offered a relaxed, close-up view of a champion, a treat many athletes never experience. She smiled and made small talk as the girls moved through the autograph line. Some looked stunned. Several smiled through an energetic “thank you.”
“I think it’s pretty cool,” said Ashton Locklear, 16, one of Everest’s elite gymnasts. “It’s always been my dream to reach the level (Liukin) has. She is someone to look up to.”
Liukin signed every autograph and then was whisked away. She and her entourage headed out to battle I-77 traffic. Many of the gymnasts tucked away their autographed items and returned to practice, perhaps with visions of gold medals dancing in their heads.