Aug. 15, 2008
Look out Nadia and Mary Lou... There's a new "first-name-needed-only" icon that's just thrown down the gauntlet on the rest of the world's female gymnasts -- of ALL ages.
It's NAA-stee-ya. Short for Anastasia. The young lady was born of Russian parents who emigrated to the US when Nastia was very, very young.
She's our girl. I was secretly hoping that it would be her today, and not only because she's one of the athletes that always seems to initiate saying hello to the behind-the-scenes people like myself at USA Gymnastics events back in the States.
Earlier today as he has done during each gymnastics victory ceremony to date, our boss (an Aussie) gave all three announcers (French - English - Chinese) the green light to add emphasis when introducing the new Olympic Champion to the world for the first time. The script reads: "The Gold Medalist and Olympic Champion - United States of America..." The order: French - English - Chinese.
I could hardly hear "Tony" the Chinese announcer over the crowd noise, and I was sitting right next to him. When he finished, it was up to me to announce any non-Chinese Gold Medal Champion's name loudly, clearly, with emphasis, but no extra schmaltz. You know, like it's the Olympics.
During that dramatic half-second pause, I must admit, it crossed my mind for a flash to do a Mike Buffer-like boxing intro for this very special American champion:
I'm told Nastia has already recounted "hearing my name" to the media as one of the day's highlights, so I think I did right by her with enough enthusiasm... but with only moderate schmaltz to keep the Chinese organizers from booking me on an earlier flight back home.
Back in 2006 I had the great honor of hosting a "Silver Medal Victory Tour" for the USA Women's Team.
That was the year our gals finished second at World Championships in Denmark. One of the stops was Nastia's local high school in Allen, Texas. The core of this talented team was all along for the extended weekend tour, including future Olympic Team members Nastia, Alicia Sacramone, Chelsea Memmel... and Jana Bieger, a 2008 Olympic alternate. The Luikin's World Olympic Gymnastics Academy was holding its invitational meet, and the USA women got to perform group and individual routines and sign autographs for a large adoring crowd. This high school gym was plenty massive enough to hold the crowd comfortably. You see, Allen is a Texas "Mega-high school" that has a Pizza Hut AND a Subway in the school cafeteria.
I got the chance to spend a little time talking with Nastia's Mom and Dad, both former gymnasts for the U.S.S.R. as a rhythmic world champ and an artistic Olympic champ, respectively. The three of them together are all wonderfully engaging people, passionate about sports and each other. And Nastia's parents have done a great job raising her. At the Olympic Trials in Philadelphia last month, I read that mom Anna can't bear to see Nastia perform on balance beam, and will often leave the seating area of the arena during that exercise. She knows the risks of this daring sport all too well, having been a world champion rhythmic gymnast herself, and married to an artistic gymnastics Olympic champion. I found this to be true when strolling along the seating area of the Wachovia Center, checking out a preliminary training session that was not open to the public. There was Anna, her seat way up in row 20 or so, working on some fabric craft project and oblivious to the work being done down below on the competition equipment by her husband (Coach Valeri) and daughter - now the other Olympic champion in the Luiken household.
Nastia would have been eligible (and READY!) for the 2004 Athens Games had the Federation of International Gymnastics not raised the age of qualification from 15 to 16 during the prior four years. Her perseverance and faith over the last four years in light of being "dethroned" at age 18 by her friendly USA rival Shawn Johnson (All-Around Champ of 2007 Worlds and 2008 US Nationals AND Olympic Trials at age 16) has been a model to us all.
Go Nastia! Go Shawn! The USA Women are BAAAAAAACK!
All the best from Beijing, -- Dan