Nastia Liukin recalls 2012 Olympic trials fall, concussion in ‘Finding My Shine’

Nastia Liukin
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Nastia Liukin says her 2008 Olympic all-around victory was not the defining moment of her life.

Rather, what happened four years later proved more of an inspiration for the gymnast’s memoir, “Finding My Shine,” which went on sale Tuesday.

In 2012, Liukin emerged from three years off and attempted to become the first U.S. women’s gymnast in 12 years to make back-to-back Olympic teams.

The comeback ended, for all intents and purposes, on a blue mat below the uneven bars at the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif.

Liukin, now an NBC Olympic analyst, was competing on her trademark event and faceplanted on a release skill on which she also fell in her first national competition in 2002, when she was 12 years old.

She recalled that evening in this excerpt:

“Everything in 2012 hinged on two nights of competition. My bar routine was very difficult, but it was one that I had done thousands of times. I started out well and felt very, very confident. But about twenty-five seconds into the routine, I let go of the bar, flipped, twisted around, and when I came back toward the bar to grab it, I missed it and hit the ground hard, flat on my face.

In that instant, I knew my gymnastics career was over. Then a lot of things happened very quickly. After my body had absorbed the impact of the fall onto the hard mats, I pulled myself onto my knees. My dad, who had been spotting me rushed over. His first words spoke of his concern for me. “I’m okay,” I told him, rolling my neck around. I wasn’t really. My neck hurt and I later was found to have suffered a mild concussion, but I didn’t know that then.

One of the first things a gymnast learns is how to fall. While the fall looked and sounded worse than it was, we are taught to fall flat, to avoid landing on a limb and breaking it. In the very last moment I knew I was not going to catch the bar or my dreams for that matter.

I was only thinking about the fall, but I can imagine the conflicted thoughts that were running through my dad’s mind. As my coach and spotter, it was his job to catch me if I fell. But, if he touched me, even laid one finger on me when I could have actually caught the bar on my own, it was an automatic one-point deduction to my score. When scores are calculated in thousandths, a full point is a huge price to pay.

To catch me––or not? My dad only had a split second to make his decision, and up until the last instant even I thought I was going to catch the bar. I’ve watched the video of that fall many times, and if I had been in his shoes, I have to say that I would have made the same decision as he did. I am positive that even if he had caught me, I still would have fallen. Then we both would have gone down, and one or both of us could have gotten hurt.

I knew I had just thirty short seconds to get back up on the bars and finish my routine––if I chose to. Life is all about choices. I could have walked away, even walked out of the gym and all the way back to Texas, and no one would have faulted me for that choice. Well, no one but me. I knew that this was a decision I would have to live with for the rest of my life, and if I wanted to end my career on my terms I had to finish my routine. I also knew that if I completed this routine I would also have the courage to finish anything I ever started in my life. Besides, my dad had always taught me to finish what I started.

The crowd was eerily silent as I walked to re-chalk my hands. Then, when I walked back toward the bars they erupted into a deafening round of cheers. I had never heard anything like it before. The cheers were so loud that their echoes banged around inside my head and it was hard for me to think. I nodded at my dad and he boosted me back up onto the bars. And because I knew my career was over, I forgot about the competition. I forgot about the crowd, and my team. I forgot about the television cameras, photographers, and reporters. I finished that routine for my dad. He had been with me every step of the way, through all of the ups and down inside the gym and out. Whenever I faltered he’d always say, “Get up and go,” so I did. I finished that routine and I have to say, I enjoyed every second of it.

At the end, I landed on my feet. Then I saluted to the judges, and the now silent crowd burst once again into rousing cheers. I was in total shock at their reaction. And when I looked up into the crowded arena, I saw almost twenty-thousand people on their feet. I was getting a standing ovation! Even all of the other coaches were clapping for me. So many emotions were flowing through me that I didn’t know what to do. Tears formed and began to roll down my cheeks. I had just finished the absolute worst routine of my career, and these people still were supporting me. I waved to each section of the crowd and mouthed thank you. Their reaction was actually hard for me to comprehend. I loved what this wonderful group of spectators had done for me, but did not yet quite understand it. Then I saw my dad, went over to him, and hugged him for all the years of love and guidance that he had devoted to me.

I had never earned a standing ovation before. Not even when I won the all-around at the Olympics. I still find it very ironic that the first time people thought enough of my performance to stand up and clap for me was when I fell, splat, onto some very hard gymnasium mats.”

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