Olympic Gymnast Nastia Liukin Tells Us What It's Like To Retire At 22
If you watched the Olympics in 2008, you were probably glued to the screen while gymnast Nastia Liukin dominated, bouncing and flinging her body around balance beams and uneven bars. She left Beijing that summer with five medals, making her the third woman gymnast in history to achieve such a feat.
Today, those medals are at her home base somewhere in Texas — she “thinks” — and after retiring from gymnastics in 2012, at the tender age of 22, she has remade herself into a modern-day entrepreneur of sorts, mixing sports commentating, a partnership with skin care company Volition Beauty, and a little bit of blogging and influencing for good measure (it is 2019, after all). She also teamed up with USA Gymnastics 10 years ago to launch the Nastia Liukin Cup, a competition for the country’s top Junior Olympic gymnasts, which benefits the National Gymnastics Foundation.
Liukin spoke with Bustle about what it’s like to “retire” so young, how she has reexamined her life to prioritize family and friends over work (sometimes, at least!), and why she feels like a different person.
I never envisioned or put much thought into life after gymnastics. My goal was to be a gold medal-winning gymnast, and I achieved that — a lifelong dream — at the ripe age of 18. In that moment, I was, of course, happy, but I was also incredibly unsettled by the uncertainty of my future. What would I do? Who would I be without gymnastics? These are questions I had to figure out on the spot. I flailed a bit, for sure. But I quickly realized that my passion for gymnastics would never dissipate, no matter if I was competing or not. I found a way to be a part of my sport in a more long-term sense, building a career as a commentator and becoming involved in multiple Olympic organizations.
While I’m obviously proud of the Olympic gold medal I won, my parents taught me at a young age that your life and career should never be defined by the amount of medals you’ve won or your accomplishments. I look back and I am proud of the obstacles I overcame, the days I really wanted to give up but didn't, the relationships I created, and the person that gymnastics molded me into.
Winning a gold medal, I learned, doesn't define you. It's the moments that lead up to or follow that moment of glory, the messy, gritty, challenging moments that speak to who you are.
When I retired abruptly, after falling on my face in the 2012 Olympic trials, it put my entire life, and future, into perspective. It made me evaluate what was truly important to me. Winning a gold medal, I learned, doesn't define you. It's the moments that lead up to or follow that moment of glory, the messy, gritty, challenging moments that speak to who you are.
That moment was life-changing for me. At the time, I didn’t quite realize it, but in the years following, I began to look at that moment as the pivotal juncture of my career. We will all have moments in our lives when we fall — literally or figuratively. When I picked myself up and finished my routine, I realized that our lives will never be defined by results, a gold medal, a job position, or a salary. That moment shaped me into the person I am today.
The transition out of gymnastics was scary, but also thrilling. Gymnastics was all that I knew. What I’ve learned these last few years is you can move on and set new goals for yourself. It’s OK to not know what you want to do. It took me a long time to figure out who I was without gymnastics in my life. I had to force myself to do that and put myself in situations where I wasn’t always in my comfort zone.
My day-to-day life is pretty different now. I was so used to living a very structured life. Today, there are definitely times where I wake up and I have to think about where I am and what I have that day.
I love working on so many different projects now. I didn’t love it at first, as I transitioned from being a gymnast. I had to figure out what my passions were, and what I wanted to do.
Today, I have my foot in the door in a lot of different areas in my life. I’m really looking forward to commentating in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympics next year. I enjoy doing that, trying to continue my passion and hopefully trying to inspire the next generation with gymnastics. The Nastia Liukin Cup was really special to me in creating that. We’re going into our 11th year. And getting into the beauty world is something I’ve always wanted to do. That’s why I loved getting involved with Volition.
There are so many different angles to my life now. I love being able to commentate. In the social media world we live in, I guess you could say I am an influencer to a certain extent. Maybe entrepreneur would be the best way to put it.
Perhaps that sounds dramatic, but I really have gone through quite a bit in the last four to five years, and I’m finally starting to feel like the woman I’ve hoped — and worked — to become. My life has dramatically changed since then, and I feel like I am a new person.
I finished my competitive career, moved to New York, and went to NYU to study sports management. That phase shaped me into this new person. It made me realize who I was without gymnastics in my life. I didn’t have to be defined by one thing. In my personal life, going through a relationship and a breakup and figuring out that angle of my life — I feel like I have had a very transitional few years. I’ve realized the person I want to be and the things I want to do, both professionally and personally. Sometimes that takes years, sometimes that takes months. I finally feel like I am the person I want to be.
At this point in my life, I’m not sure my degree in sports management is what I want to do right now. It was important for me to expand my knowledge outside gymnastics. Obviously, sports management has been part of my life. I got to learn a lot about professional sports and contracts; I’ve taken a few law classes. Being able to read through my contracts and know some of the terminology is helpful. But who knows. Maybe in five, 10, 15 years.
While my career is extremely important to me, at the end of the day, all of that goes away and you’re left with your loved ones.
In terms of what’s next, I’m really making an effort to try to have better balance between my personal life and my professional life. It’s not always easy for me — or anyone for that matter — because I want to do it all. If I feel I’m spending too much time on work-related stuff and not enough time on my family and friends, I try to balance that out more. It takes time. Hopefully I get better at it as time goes on. While my career is extremely important to me, at the end of the day, all of that goes away and you’re left with your loved ones. The last 10 years of my life, I’ve traveled quite a bit and haven’t spent as much time with my family and friends as I would have hoped. People are extremely understanding, but I’m making that effort to be aware of it now. That’s helpful, but I’m still learning. It’s important to be able to take time on weekends or evenings. Being aware of it has already been beneficial. I feel like I’m getting better at it.
I sometimes struggle saying no and find myself completely overwhelmed, but I’m constantly making an effort to be cautious of the time and energy and how I can divide those things amongst the different areas of my life. I’ll be traveling to Tokyo to commentate for NBC Sports next summer, so I’m really looking forward to that, and everything that comes with an exciting Olympic year. I definitely have more goals in the beauty industry, and I think this is just the beginning.
As told to Bibi Deitz. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.