Nastia Liukin may be best known for her gold medal-winning performance in individual all-around competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Despite retiring from competition in 2012, fans of the longtime North Texan and new Preston Hollow resident will be able to see the gymnast again at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
Tokyo will mark Liukin’s second Olympic Games as a gymnastics analyst for NBC. With no fans or family allowed to attend, Liukin knows her role will be even more crucial to providing viewers with coverage and information. While many athletes, news outlets and national governing bodies have acknowledged that this arrangement is far from ideal, just holding the Games is a feat in itself.
Questions and doubts surrounding the possibility of running the global event have been circulating since its one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite the odds, the Games are set to open Friday. Although we will witness countless gold medal-winning performances over the next few weeks, this achievement alone may prove to be the greatest triumph of them all.
I sat down with Liukin before she left for Japan to discuss her role as an NBC gymnastics analyst and her expectations for what will certainly be an Olympics unlike any other. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Tokyo will obviously be very different from previous Olympic Games. What are some of your expectations for Tokyo?
Part of me is so happy that the Olympics are still able to happen. For so many of the athletes, their dreams are still able to be fulfilled and they will still become Olympians and get to compete. But for so many people it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and experience, and to not be able to have the full experience with the fans and family there, it is definitely hard. I’ve always just believed in trying to see the positive in everything and so I think my main goal is to just try to provide the best coverage and experience for everybody back at home — whether they were supposed to be there for daughters, sons, siblings, [who are] competing, or just fans of the Olympics in general.
For many of these athletes, aside from their coaches and teammates, you might be one of the few familiar faces in the crowd. How does this impact your role as an analyst?
It’s so interesting. I’ve never thought about it that way. It’s funny because when I am commentating, at a nationals or an Olympic trials, our table is normally right by the end of the vault. So it’s really hard, especially because I know the athletes so well, for me sometimes. They literally are looking at me, making eye contact, and we’re on air. Last time Simone [Biles] literally was screaming something to me and I have my headphones on and we’re on air and [laughs]. So I think it’s that line of trying to be a friend and supportive and also do my job.
I take a lot of responsibility in that I know and understand the pressure and all the feelings that you feel at an Olympics. But then, to not have anyone besides your teammates and your coach there with you, I don’t know what that feels like. So I’m going to try my best to be there for them as much as I possibly can.
At times like that, is it challenging to balance your personal relationships with the athletes with your responsibilities?
I think that was the hardest part of the transition for me. At first I was like, ‘Okay, how do I do this?’ and that is when I realized there is a way to do your job to analyze and critique, but in a positive way. I’ve been in their shoes where sometimes I either read articles or watched coverage and they weren’t always positive. That can affect you. I’m not saying, ‘Just be nice because you know them.’ It has nothing to do with that, but I know the amount of stress, pressure and all the things that they’re facing, so I think if you’re able to do it in a positive light, why not choose the positive.
As a viewer and a former athlete myself, I really appreciate your ability as an analyst to offer critical insight while remaining positive. Is this a challenging balance for you to maintain?
I think the more challenging balance for me is balancing my personal relationships with the athletes and my job as an analyst. I talk to a lot of the athletes, like Simone for instance, all the time. But I have to view her as two separate people. When we’re texting or calling, we’re just friends, and when she’s in the gym competing and I’m on air commentating, we’re in our own elements. So it’s not that I don’t have a relationship with her outside of my job, but essentially there is a level of trust. I know if she’s sharing something with me personally or if we’re on a call and it’s an NBC call. So there’s a line of having to trust and it goes both ways.
At first it was hard talking about my friends and sometimes someone would say something negative and it was hard not to fight back and be extra positive. I know what it’s like being an athlete and it’s hard not to stand up for people. Especially your friends, but [also every other athlete], because I know what goes into even just getting to a Nationals or getting to any competition.
I think positivity comes a little bit more naturally to me. When I watch someone do a skill or a routine, if they mess up, I look at it from a technique perspective. That was the way my dad coached me. It was always from a technique aspect of ‘Why did that happen?’ It was never ‘Why didn’t you do it?’ It was more like ‘Let’s break it down and take it down two notches and step back and figure out why that happened.’ So regardless of if I’m commentating or just watching, that’s what I think like. I’m very technical, but then I have to remind myself that most of our viewers watching aren’t necessarily as technical. That’s the hardest line to draw — wanting to share my knowledge and what I’ve learned but then also not scaring people away with too much technique and too many names of skills.
How do the pressures of live broadcast compare to the pressures of actually competing?
When you’re competing, it’s a different type of pressure. It’s a different type of nerve because when you’re competing, you’re in control. But when you’re commentating, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know where we’re going next. You don’t know what someone’s going to do and your mic is always on. So when someone has a bad fall you can’t really gasp or say anything. It is so hard to compare because they’re so different, but I do think the not being in control part was hard to get used to and now I totally understand why my mom could never watch me compete [laughs].
“When you’re competing, you’re in control. But when you’re commentating, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know where we’re going next.”
Texas is sending an impressive 31 athletes to Tokyo as part of Team USA. Are there any particular Texas athletes you are following or storylines you are interested to see play out in Tokyo?
Of course there is Simone. She is the greatest of all time and I just totally respect everything that she’s doing. She continues to set the bar so high for herself and she’s constantly raising that bar. I think that’s really admirable. She doesn’t have to be doing all these new skills. She doesn’t have to raise her level of difficulties. She could do exactly what she did in Rio and still come out on top and yet she comes out better, faster, stronger, and is constantly trying to be better than she ever was. I think it’s hard not to cheer for somebody like that because she’s just evolving the sport both on and off the gymnastics floor as well. I respect it so much.
What are some of the effects, from the pandemic and delay of the Games, that you think we will be able to see in athletes’ performance in Tokyo?
Peaking at the right time is something athletes are very familiar with. As the year has gone on from nationals to trials and now that the Olympics are a few days away, I think everybody is hopefully, slowly but surely, peaking at the right time. But with the delay, it’s a situation that nobody knows how to navigate because nobody has ever been through that and coaches have never had to put together a training plan for a year delay. They’ve never experienced something like this. Everyone is just kind of trying the best that they can, but I think, hopefully, once they get over that mental hump of having to scratch a plan, throw it out the window and start over, they can still be successful.
I mean, you look at Simone and she got better. She learned new skills — that is how you take advantage of another year. That being said, it is not easy. I try to put myself in their shoes and imagine if 2008 were delayed to 2009 and just the mental strength that it has to take is so impressive. Then of course there are no fans in the stands and you get that adrenaline rush when you walk into an arena and 20,000 people are there and it’s like ‘OK, I’m here.’ But with that comes the nerves, the stress, the pressure, all of that. So is it going to help or hurt the athletes? You don’t know because we’ve never experienced anything like this.
I’m crossing my fingers for them because no one really knows. There’s no right advice to give besides, ‘Just go out there and be you and do what you’ve been training for. And the rest is out of your control.’