BEIJING – Valeri Liukin needed simply to stick his dismount from the high bar, just land it clean and the 1988 Olympic gold in men's all-around gymnastics was his. When he landed, he thought he had it. Then he swayed slightly, swinging his arms around wildly to prevent the big step that would surely doom him.
He was doomed anyway.
"I received a 9.95 in the old scoring," Liukin said. The Soviet settled for silver by one-tenth of a point.
Nastia Liukin had heard the tale her entire life.
It came with her family when they left Russia for a new life in America, was repeated during the early days outside Dallas, when her parents tried to keep gymnastics fun no matter how enormous her talent, right through to the pressure-packed moments before she took the floor to seize her own destiny.
She never forgot how precious the present can be, how big the opportunity of one single moment in time.
Friday, Nastia Liukin, the American born in the Soviet Union, the Texan with a Russian name and the 18-year-old in a competition full of preteen scandal became something else – the daughter with the gold of her father.
"Twenty years ago today I competed," Valeri said. "Today she fixed my mistake."
There would be no worries over a final bauble for his daughter. Nastia, clad in pink with USA spelled in sequins on her shoulder, left the women's all-around field in the dust. She beat fellow American Shawn Johnson by a healthy six-tenths of a point.
In a week where the gymnastics hall has become a cauldron of accusations and allegations, where we may never truly know how old bronze medalist Yang Yilin of China is, was or will be, the Liukins, father and daughter, returned the focus to precision and perfection.
This was a gymnastics day long coming. Nastia is the daughter not just of Valeri, who would win four medals in his career. Mother Anna Kotchneva was a world champion rhythmic gymnast. While Valeri is the coach, Anna would prove to be the mediator when her hard-headed husband and stubborn daughter would bring training clashes home.
That's the extent of her contribution, though. Anna couldn't bear the pressure of watching; "She's chicken," Valeri said. Friday she preferred to walk the streets of Beijing alone in an attempt to avoid any updates until it was over.
It turned out to be over before it was officially over. Nastia had delivered near perfection on the floor exercise, opening a lead too great for Johnson to close in her final performance.
Father and daughter had already hugged by then, both on the brink of tears, a moment of family admiration earned through hard work and big dreams. They were going to win, but it was more than that. Valeri Liukin understands better than anyone that gold is not the glory, the pursuit of gold is.
There is a normalcy with these two, a trust and love that shines through and belies what is often a joyless pursuit in gymnastics. This doesn't appear to be some stage father and a frightened, eager-to-please kid. Nastia isn't backing down from anyone.
"Nastia has a very strong character," laughed Valeri. "It wasn't easy."
He threw up his hands and joked like the dad of any teenage girl. "I hope she listens to me half the time."
"My father," Nastia said, "I wouldn't want to share it with anyone else."
Eventually Valeri found his wife on her cell phone, where she crumbled into tears at the news. Nastia sent a text. She wanted to talk, but it was time for the medal the family had waited two decades for.
It was just a couple months ago that Nastia put together a motivational collage to hang up in her bedroom. It was full of pictures and sayings, things like that. Anna saw it and decided to add an old piece of family history, dusting off one of her husband's four Olympic medals, this one a gold from winning the parallel bars.
She hung it right alongside the collage.
"I saw it every day," Nastia said.
When they called Nastia's name, announced that she was from the United States of America and put her on the highest stand, the family couldn't hold it together. A gold necklace hung around her neck and this daughter of the final generation of communist Moscow stood straight for "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"I thought of my father," she said. "I hope he feels as proud as I did."
It was too much to contemplate, really. She couldn't stop crying. She tried to collect herself and sing. Behind her, off to the side, Valeri wasn't any better.
"I tried to hide from crying," he said. "This is our dream."
This was an immigrant's moment, a family that found that very freedom, that very future they thought possible in the United States.
"I love America," Valeri said. "America gave me many opportunities. We love Russia very much, but we're proud to represent the USA."
He said this deep into this glorious day, after he watched his little girl become champion of the world, after the Liukins' all-around gold finally arrived, after his wife finally stopped panicking and, perhaps, after all the crying.
"I just love Nastia," he said. "I just love my daughter."
Valeri Liukin had waited two decades for this moment, two decades after his own mistake cost him gold and years after he started reminding her of it. In that time, on this day, he'd come to realize something.
Watching his daughter was better than doing it himself. Her gold, it turned out, was more brilliant than he could have imagined.
- Valeri Liukin
- Nastia Liukin