Olympics: Liukin cheered in return home
By BRIAN PORTER/Staff Writer
She once was just one of the girls.
With flashbulbs popping and hundreds of girls chanting her name Thursday evening at D/FW International Airport, Nastia Liukin was a bit taken back.
She stood and glanced over a mass of about 500 people who turned out from all areas to meet the five-time Olympic medalist and reigning Olympic all-around gymnastics champion.
“Exactly four years ago when Carly (Patterson) won, I remember being one of those girls out there welcoming her home,” Nastia said. “I’m still shocked my dreams have come true.”
Any thoughts Nastia, 18, had of quietly drifting back into Dallas and her Collin County life were thwarted the minute her plane from Beijing landed. She greeted troops leaving for a tour of duty in Iraq and made her way to a crowd that was there not to get a glimpse of the gold, but a glimpse of Nastia.
They seemed to know all the facts: She won the all-around. She lost a tiebreaker for a chance at a second gold, settling for three more silver medals and a bronze. She’s the most decorated U.S. gymnast in Olympics history.
Home of an Olympian
This used to be cattle country and in Parker the most well known person used to be J.R. Ewing. He had that big ranch and the No. 1 rated television show. It was a symbol of Texas.
Parker, like many booming areas of North Texas, has grown up. Ewing is kind of passé these days. A girl looking for inspiration won’t find it in the oil baron. He never won gymnastics gold.
“Since the time I saw her, I really wanted her to win the gold,” said Jenna Zozaya, 11, of Keller. “She did. She’s my favorite.”
At the insistence of her fans, Nastia removed her five medals from a felt bag to a sea of cheers. Only after repeated prompting did she, in an ever so Texas sort of way, reveal her plans for the medals. They won’t be going to the gym or to the fireplace mantle at home.
“I’m going to keep them with me for now … in my purse,” Nastia said.
Her fans were satisfied with that answer, but before they were done a few boys had made marriage proposals and one confirmed she did not have a boyfriend. Her mother said they’d need to make an appointment. Such is the life of a rising star.
How fleeting fame can be.
Zozaya spoke of her love for Nastia. She’s impressionable at her young age. She seems to have been old enough to possibly have another area gymnastics hero. Only four short years earlier it was Allen’s Patterson who returned home a champion to much pomp and circumstance.
Zozaya couldn’t recall exactly who Carly might have been, although such a short time ago she was a household name.
“Everyone knows your name as soon as you get back,” said Patterson, 20, close friends with Nastia. “We may not always have the fame, but we’ll always have our gold medals and we’ll always know we achieved our dream.”
Patterson is working on an album release in her second career. Nastia is not sure she’s ready to quit on her first.
“My parents always told me to set dreams and goals for myself and I have,” Nastia said. “Even when times get tough, you know they’re going to get better.”
If she doesn’t compete in four years, these memories might be enough for Nastia. She stood on the medal stand five times and heard her national anthem play after winning all-around gold. She turned from teenager into an icon overnight.
It is likely that all hit her as she walked through a sea of flashbulbs and fans at about 4:20 p.m. Thursday at D/FW International Airport.
“I thought there would just be a few girls from the gym and a few coaches here,” Nastia said. “I am still in shock. My dreams have come true.”
They did for Carly, too. She told stories of whirlwind trips, parades, celebrations and appearances n almost more than a teenager can handle.
“She’s busy and will stay that way for a long time,” Patterson said.
The two girls became friends and according to Patterson tried to find things to do away from the gym.
“We had girls’ nights,” Patterson said. “I don’t think we’ll be doing that anytime soon. My schedule is open; she’ll be busy.”
There are those who weren’t around for Carly, but are for Nastia.
“I told her she could be out here if she wanted to see Nastia,” said Samantha Story, of Bedford, of her promise to her daughter Alexandra, 3. “She watched gymnastics with Nastia and nothing else. I was never into gymnastics. I might have found something to get her into.”
It is debatable where the credit should lie.
Was it the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy or the coaches instructing there which inspired consecutive Olympic champions within the same county. Or, could it have been elite athletes groomed into champions?
“The Dallas area is really hot right now,” said Nastia’s father Valeri Liukin, co-owner of WOGA. “We started the gym 16 years ago and it was nothing that we knew. There were some gymnasts. I guess it had something to do with us.”
When Patterson returned home a champion four years ago, it was almost instantly that Nastia began hearing people tell her it was possible.
“They said I’d have a chance to win in four years,” she said. “Now it is here, its over and I won. I can’t believe I won. I can’t believe I won five medals.”
Now the gym is registering 50 kids per day for classes each at facilities in Dallas, Frisco and Plano, according to Yevgeny Marchenko, co-owner of WOGA. “If you want to do gymnastics, I guess it’s the place to be,” he said.
There seems to be little argument, what with 235 national and international champions from the gym.
“I’m a little biased, but I think we have the best gym and the best coaches in the country,” Patterson said. “I’m excited for Nastia, but also for the gym.”
The child of Olympian parents, Nastia has long been viewed, at least at WOGA, as the future of gymnastics.
It may never have been ¬n at least not for the USA.
Valeri and Yevgeny left New Orleans after two years to start a gym in Plano. They had a dream, but no plan.
“We approached everyone,” Yevgeny said. “We went to banks, to small businesses, everywhere in Plano. Everyone asked us if we had collateral, but no one would help us. After six months, we hadn’t found a penny.”
Valeri went back to Russia and sold his apartment and with $100,000 in contributions from friends in Russia he gathered the capital to build the gym.
“It took eight months, mostly because we did all the labor ourselves,” Yevgeny said. “The day the doors opened we had $300 left in our account.”
The co-owners say they saw the future in Plano. They noted 32 elementary schools in the public school district at the time and thought it would work.
Without the effort and enduring those times, perhaps Carly and Nastia never would have been. Maybe they would have been other girls. Maybe they would have been the same girls from other places.
Both say it doesn’t matter now. They have their medals and have established North Texas as a gymnastics powerhouse.