Brunch with Nastia: Competitors get up close before Nastia Liukin Cup


By Jo-Ann BarnasSpecial to USA Gymnastics

ARLINGTON, Texas – It was hard to know which event 13-year-old Chae Campbell was more excited about – competing in tonight’s Nastia Liukin Cup at AT&T Stadium, or having brunch with the five-time Olympic medalist that morning.

“Nastia Liukin has always been a role model to me,” said Campbell, a Level 10 gymnast from Carrollton, Texas. “I’ve always wanted to be like her. She was so graceful on floor and on bars, swinging so fluently. I’d like to go elite and, one day, maybe try for the Olympics, too.”

Campbell is among three dozen of the country’s top Junior Olympic female gymnasts who qualified Nastia Liukin Cup, set to get underway at 8 p.m. ET at AT&T Stadium.

As an added bonus, the gymnasts were invited to spend some time with Liukin, 25, hours before the competition at a nearby hotel. After breakfast, they participated in a question-and-answer session (no coaches allowed) and were offered fun activities to prep for the meet, such as having their nails painted and decorated with Swarovski crystals.

But for all, it was clear that the best part was having a chance to see Liukin up-close, and realize that no so long ago, she was just like them.

“To see how far the event has grown, it’s really special to me,” she said. “I love having a chance to be around them.”

During the Q&A session, Liukin was asked if she controls her own Twitter account or have someone, like a publicist, do it for her.

Answer: It’s all Nastia.

“When I’m ‘liking’ your pictures, that’s actually me,” she said with a smile. “It’s important to stay true to myself.”

In its sixth year, the Nastia Liukin Cup has been a critical stepping stone for a number of gymnasts. Perhaps the best-known example is Gabby Douglas, who placed fourth in the all-around at the event in 2010 and won the Olympic gold medal in the all-around two years later.

But for Liukin, she sees her competition as a bridge to other equally-important avenues, such as college.

“That was the main for purpose for me in doing this – it wasn’t just, let’s get 36 girls that will all make the Olympic team one day,” she said. “So many of these girls are seniors in high school, and they’re on their way to college on a full-ride scholarship. You have, like, five girls here today that are going onto Michigan. There’s other girls going to Florida and OU (Oklahoma) and so forth.

“Yes, Gabby Douglas was in this meet two years before she went onto London and won Olympic gold. MyKayla Skinner competed in this competition. You do have a small (number) of girls that go onto bigger and better things. But really, what this competition is about is empowering these girls to know that they can do anything they want, and it’s not just about gymnastics.

“It’s about setting goals for yourself. It’s about having self confidence and self esteem. And it’s about learning how to shine under these lights and on a big stage – and there’s no bigger stage than AT&T Stadium.”

In just over a week, Liukin – who’s a junior at NYU – will return to a different kind of big stage herself on “Dancing With the Stars” for season 20. She’s paired with five-time champion and professional partner Derek Hough. The show’s premiere is March 16 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

“There’s a lot of good things happening right now, and I’m excited about the opportunities,” Liukin said.