Nastia Liukin is a five-time Olympic gymnastics medalist, the 2008 Olympic all-around champion, and was named 2008 athlete of the year by multiple organizations. But, Oct. 12 at the Weasler Auditorium, she told students the most important event in her life was her career-ending fall at the 2012 Olympic trials.
Liukin spoke about her early years as a gymnast and her struggles with self-confidence leading up to her 2008 Olympic debut in Beijing. Through all of her triumphs and setbacks, Liukin says her biggest takeaway was to never quit on a bad day.
“I think it goes back to your dreams, passions and goals,” she said. “When you truly love something, you have to realize that most of the time the willingness to work hard, to work through those tough moments and achieve your dreams is far stronger than just wanting to give it all up.”
After her success at the Beijing Olympic games, Liukin decided she wanted to try for one more Olympics. She went back to training seven hours a day, six days a week, working harder than she ever had. She made it all the way to the Olympic trials, and then fell off the uneven bars during a routine.
“I was so mortified, I wanted to crawl under a rock,” she said. “I wasn’t supposed to fall; I was supposed to make my second Olympic team. I wasn’t supposed to disappoint people, I was supposed to make my country and so many other people proud, but I was doing the exact opposite.”
Liukin’s father, who was also her coach, said she could walk off, but Liukin decided to finish the routine.
“I chalked back up and I finished that bar routine, and I landed on my feet on the dismount,” Liukin said. “And for the first time in my entire career I had a standing ovation. Twenty thousand people were on their feet for the worst bar routine of my entire life. And in that moment I realized that life isn’t always about winning gold medals. It’s not about ending up on top. For so many years I had thought that people would only love me, support me, or cheer me on if I had a gold medal or if I finished in first place. In that moment I realized that’s not true. People are still going to love and support you no matter what.”
Liukin’s speech also touched on self-doubt, and offered advice to students for gaining back their confidence and motivation.
“There are people out there who are going to have negative comments,” she said. “But you can’t let those people affect you. You have to remember how strong you are. Realize that your dreams and your goals are going to motivate you more than their negativity.”
Erin Zinkula, a sophomore in the College of Health Sciences and member of Marquette Crew, said Liukin’s advice about perseverance resonated with her.
“She really nailed it on the advice about not giving up,” Zinkula said. “Even on the bad days, it’s really worth fighting for and putting in the effort.”
Liukin no longer competes in professional gymnastics, but she hasn’t strayed far from the sport. She is currently a broadcaster at NBC, and was a commentator at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Madison Hicks, a freshman in the College of Communication, was moved by Liukin’s speech.
“I am always inspired by women’s accomplishments,” she said. “(Liukin) does work for young women with her foundation, and I’m very inspired by that, as well as by the adversity she faced and her focus on education. That’s huge to me because I never would have thought that she would come here after winning a gold medal and tell us how important education is.”
In 2009, Liukin established the Nastia Liukin Fund in conjunction with USA Gymnastics. Its mission is to encourage young people to live healthy and active lives. The organization partners with athletic clubs around the U.S. and provides financial aid to young athletes.
Liukin stressed the importance of education and finishing school, and left the audience with some final words of advice.
“What you guys are doing here…you’re setting up your future,” she said. “I hope that you all create memories that are going to last a lifetime.”