During the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Games, gymnastics guru Bela Karolyi visited a Dallas gym to appraise an Olympic hopeful. He was surprised to see a 10-year-old sprite cavorting among the elite gymnasts. At first Karolyi was annoyed by the distraction, but soon he found he couldn't take his eyes off the kid. "Her personality commanded attention," he says. "She had this total confidence--with no sense she didn't belong there among the best."
Today, at 17, Nastia Liukin commands the attention of the entire gymnastics world--and nobody questions her standing. She has won back-to-back U.S. all-around titles and, at the 2005 Worlds, took home more medals--two golds and two silvers--than any other gymnast. Now Liukin has her sights on Beijing 2008, where, with her dazzling repertoire, she could be America's breakout summer star.
No American gymnast has ever had a more exalted pedigree. Liukin's father, Valeri, who coaches her, won two gold medals for the Soviet Union at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Her mother, Anna, was a world-champion rhythmic gymnast. Nastia, whose family immigrated to the United States when she was 2, combines her father's precision technique with her mother's balletic lines. The ferocious ambition, says Dad, is all her own: "There's this tiger inside her."
The road to Beijing is perilous. Liukin, a leggy but frail 5 feet 2 and 92 pounds, has already suffered two back fractures and a recent ankle injury that required surgery and limited her to a cameo role at the 2006 Worlds. "I never think, 'What if I roll my ankle again?' " she says. "I think what it would be like to stand on top of the podium and listen to the national anthem." The prospect of Nastia's talent in full flower makes that a dream we all can share.