Nastia Liukin’s return to elite level gymnastics has been met with great fanfare and great skepticism. From some of the media, she has been the focal point. Celebrated as a name that is familiar and known. From many others, it has been met with much cynicism and skepticism. Many fans felt that she put off her decision too long, and that thinking she could return so quickly was arrogant and disrespectful to the gymnasts who had put in the time and should now be the ones getting the attention. Others felt that she really was not serious about her return and was just doing it for the added publicity. In all honesty, I am a bit befuddled by the negative response she has gotten. Let me go back a bit (beware, I am stepping up on to my soap box).
In 2008, Nastia tied (unofficially, officially she got second through a complicated tie -breaker system that has since been done away with) as the Olympic bars champion. Even with Nastia’s incredibly high scoring bar routine, China beat the US by 1.65 on bars. In 2010, the USA lost on bars to China by .3, even though China had a fall and the USA went clean.
In 2011, the US went in to team finals having lost most of their strong bar workers. Rebecca Bross, Mackenzie Caquatto, and Anna Li were all injured at some point in the process getting to worlds. Bridget Sloan was injured earlier in the season. This took out everyone who had been up on bars in the previous season and led to them putting up Sabrina Vega, Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber in the team finals. Jordyn Wieber, who most wish this year that she would not need to be one of the team finals bars scores, was our top bars score in 2011. Though we still won overall, even with only one of their strong bars workers, Russia beat us by .9 on bars. Though Gabby Douglas is our celebrated bars star right now, last year she either tied with Jordyn Wieber or was beat by her in all but Worlds qualifications. Gabby was scoring between 14.2-14.8. Did you notice those are 14s?!?
Am I the only one that remembers how many times we said, “Nastia, come back! We desperately need your bars” over those years? I remember a poignant moment at the last year’s Visa Championships where NBC showed Marta and Nastia (who was on the selection committee) talking seriously. Tim Daggett joked that Marta was begging Nastia, “Please come back and do bars for us!” Sure Nastia has come back for her own personal goals and glory. Of course she has. But after achieving the ultimate gymnastics goal, what more does she have to prove?
Nastia talks a lot about being afraid she would be sitting in the stands in London saying “What if.” But I wonder if she worries that the she would be sitting in the stands, wholly invested in Team USA’s results in her role on the USA selection committee, wondering “What if I would have helped out on bars and we would have won gold?” After all, in 2011 we knew that Russia had two stars sitting at home that could drastically change the outcome of our 2011 win.
Now it’s 2012. Gabby Douglas has increased her bars score by almost a point. Kyla Ross has come onto the scene and increased her bars start value by .6 over the previous year. Rebecca Bross and Bridget Sloan are back. And though we still don’t have an incredible bars line up, it looks like we have some good possibilites. But we still don’t have anyone, including Gabby, that can likely challenge the Russians on bars. So after years of hoping that Nastia would come back and give us a world class bars routine, instead of hope and excitement over what she might bring, she has been met with a good deal of scorn and skepticism.
Will Nastia be able to return to her former bars glory? I don’t know. But I think that the fact that she is willing to try, both for herself AND for the USA, is commendable. Something we should cheer on. How many of us would really be willing to give up a life of glamour and fame to train 7 hours a day? For more money, more publicity? She had plenty of both. And according to Nastia not her. “There’s no amount of money, no sponsors or media attention that would make me want to train seven hours a day,” she said in an interview back in May. (Contra Costa Times, May 25)
Speaking of fame and money, how do we tend to remember gymnasts who end their career on a failed comeback? How do we remember those that end on their highest achievement? Take Carly Patterson. We remember her smiling face as Evgeny Marchenko hoisted her up as the AA Olympic Champion. But what about Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Tasha Schwiechert? Sure, with all the incredible gymnastics they performed and their moments of glory. But also with a slight twinge of sadness and regret at their unsuccessful comeback attempts.
Without a doubt, the best way to go out is on top. If what Nastia really cares about is fame and glory, then she should NOT try to make a comeback. She should bask in the glory of this Olympic year as the reigning champion. Do tons of interviews as the athlete representative. Spend all her time traveling from media event to media event, gushing with advice and well wishes. She will never again be the reigning all around Olympic champion. THIS is the time to take advantage of the once every four years gymnastics fervor. Instead, Nastia has chosen to limit her media opportunities and to spend most of every day in the gym.
Will she make it? I don’t know. I hope so. How I long to see her beautiful lines and graceful bars and beam at the Olympics. How I want her to redeem that ridiculous tie breaker and win the gold medal she deserves on bars. But not matter the outcome, I stand with incredible respect for the comeback attempt Nastia has made.
And who knows, she just might do it. Nastia is an enormously talented gymnast. Though it may not be fair, talented gymnasts often just don’t need as much time to prepare. Valeri and Nastia Liukin have shown in the past that they understand how to prepare and how to peak. And that they absolutely do not like to be embarrassed by poor performances. I, for one, will not be surprised in the least if Nastia comes to Trials with a bar routine that proves she can be ready. Only time will tell. But even if she can’t pull it off, I tip my hat to Nastia and say THANK YOU for gracing us with your presence once again and for stepping in to try and help Team USA where we desperately need it.