Friday, July 19

Nastia Liukin to co-direct UCLA gymnastics summer camp

Olympics all-around champion Nastia Liukin will partner with the Bruins for the UCLA Gymnastics/Nastia Liukin Summer Camp from July 15 to 18.

Olympics all-around champion Nastia Liukin will partner with the Bruins for the UCLA Gymnastics/Nastia Liukin Summer Camp from July 15 to 18. Andra Lim / Daily Bruin

Though Nastia Liukin is famous for the pink leotard she wore at the 2008 Olympic Games, her heart bleeds baby blue and gold.

A year and a half ago, Liukin’s career skyrocketed when she won five medals and was named the all-around champion. But before she was a member of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in Beijing, she was a member of the Bruin family in Westwood.

“I’ll never be able to be part of a college gymnastics team because I gave up my NCAA eligibility when I turned professional,” Liukin said. “But if I was eligible, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would go to UCLA.”

This summer, she will co-direct the UCLA Gymnastics/Nastia Liukin Summer Camp from July 15 to 18, marking the first time in the program’s 20-plus-year history that it has partnered with an Olympic champion.

The camp is a way for Liukin to strengthen her relationship with UCLA, but it is also a result of the Bruin ties she has developed over the past several years.

When she was 12, Liukin met Valorie Kondos Field, coach of the UCLA women’s gymnastics team, at the World Olympics Gymnastics Academy in Dallas. Though most college recruiters ignored Liukin, who had already gone professional, Kondos Field did just the opposite.

“That very night I sat down and wrote her a letter, saying she was an impressive young lady, and if she ever needed anything from me or UCLA, we’d be happy to help her out,” Kondos Field said. “She was really gracious and hospitable at a very young age, and I got back a handwritten note from her within a week.”

At around the same time, Liukin became friends with Allison Taylor, now a third-year sociology student on the UCLA gymnastics team. They immediately hit it off when Taylor switched over to the academy where Liukin trained.

“Ever since I got recruited to come to UCLA, she’s really embraced what being a Bruin is all about,” Taylor said. “I’d bring her back T-shirts, and when she came to L.A., she loved the campus.”

Since the Olympics, Liukin has become a frequent visitor to Westwood. She has cheered on UCLA’s football and gymnastics teams, run laps around the track at Drake Stadium and eaten at Yogurtland. She said she is close with all the girls on the gymnastics team and makes sure to keep in contact with them when she is away.

“Nastia’s got a very wonderful life, but (visiting UCLA) is a respite from that. She’s able to be a normal girl,” Kondos Field said.

Liukin’s hectic schedule has prevented her from working hands-on with gymnasts at past summer camps, she said.

“Normally I come to camps and just sign autographs and take some pictures,” Liukin said. “But I’m really committing to this. I’m really looking forward to getting to know all the kids.”

Kondos Field said Liukin approached her with the idea of joining forces for the camp toward the end of 2009.

The reasonable price of the camp coupled with Liukin’s fame should make this summer’s program especially popular, Kondos Field said.

Chris Waller, assistant coach of the women’s gymnastics team and co-director of the camp, expects at least 200 girls ages 6 to 18 of all skill levels to attend.

Waller and Liukin are constantly developing new ideas for the camp. One addition to this summer’s program will be the Dream Session, a presentation by Liukin about the importance of setting personal goals.

Right before the trials for the 2008 Beijing games, she read Rhonda Byrne’s book “The Secret.”

“It’s about attracting positive things to yourself. If you believe positive things, positive things will happen,” Liukin said.

In line with this thinking, she creates an annual “vision board”: a poster board covered with pictures representing what she hopes to achieve.

Her 2008 board included images of an Olympic gold medal and the Eiffel Tower. By the end of the year, Liukin had become the third American gymnast to win five medals in one game and had taken a long-hoped-for trip to Paris.

“My journey was never easy. I battled a lot of injuries, but I was still able to achieve my goals. I want to share with the kids that they should never be afraid to dream,” said Liukin, who will help the girls create their own vision boards during the Dream Session.

Kondos Field hopes to instill a similar attitude in UCLA student athletes.

“Nastia quietly, confidently, humbly made the choice to be an Olympic champion. The night before the Olympics she dreamt out the entire week, and (in her dream she was) wearing her pink leotard,” Kondos Field said. “It’s great to be affiliated with an Olympic champion, but I don’t know that we’d do it if Nastia wasn’t the person she was, if we didn’t have such great respect for her. She’s as much a part of the UCLA gymnastics team as any one of our girls.”

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