Olympic champ enjoys watching U.

Liukin attends meet in show of support for her friend Kim

By Linda Hamilton

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, March 15 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Missy Marlowe was a 1988 U.S. Olympian and one of the most decorated NCAA gymnasts in history, but as she awaited Friday night's University of Utah gymnastics meet with Florida in the Huntsman Center, Marlowe said she was "star-struck."

That's because she got a chance to meet 2008 Beijing Olympic all-around gold medalist Nastia Liukin and get some pictures taken with her.

Marlowe knows well Liukin's father, Valeri, the 1988 Olympic silver all-around and team gold medalist. They toured together after the Olympics and see each other fairly often. But meeting Valeri's daughter was still a thrill that had Marlowe, now a TV analyst for the Utes, feeling like doing a cartwheel.

Nastia understood how Marlowe felt.

"I still feel that way around every famous person," the 19-year-old said as she watched the Utes' meet. Liukin was there to support her best friend, the Utes' Nina Kim, on Kim's Senior Night. The two trained together at World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Dallas, a gym run by her parents, and Liukin and Kim talk to each other nearly every day.

"I don't feel famous or anything," Liukin said, though she was recognized several times in the Salt Lake City International Airport as she came into town Friday.

"I still feel like the same Nastia Liukin, and I hope people see that I haven't changed my personality just because of my accomplishments."

Certainly she and Kim haven't let Liukin's fame change their relationship. They talk every day, by chat, text or phone. Liukin surprised Kim by coming to the meet, though she'd planned the visit since last summer. She kept it a secret from Kim until two days before, then joined Kim on the floor for her Senior Night introduction and sat at the scorers' table cheering and taking pictures like a fan and wearing a red Ute jersey.

"I'm here tonight," Liukin said Friday, "just to support Nina. This is one of the nights that I wish that my Olympic title wouldn't — I don't know how to put it — wouldn't relate to me because I just want to be here today as her friend to support her. I want them to know I'm Nina's biggest supporter."

Liukin said she is busy traveling to appearances nearly every weekend but kept this one clear for Kim. During the week, Liukin attends Southern Methodist University and trains.

Though the end of Kim's career will come following the NCAA Championships at Nebraska April 16-18, Liukin plans on more international competition. She's excited that the next U.S. national championships are in her hometown of Dallas this summer, and she's planning on qualifying for the next World Championships "and maybe get a few more medals. I'm not always in gymnastics for the medals, but you can never go wrong with a few more world titles," said Liukin, who has nine world medals, including three event golds.

And then, "The Olympics are only three years away. If I could be there in 2012 in London, I would do anything I could. It was just the best experience of my life in Beijing."

The daughter of two gymnasts — her mother was a World Champion in rhythmic gymnastics — Nastia said she'll take her career a year at a time, "but gymnastics is definitely my passion. It's what I love to do. I'm going to keep training because gymnastics is definitely my life, and it's going to be in my family for so long."

Winning the Olympic gold, she said, has changed her life, "I would say, for the better. You don't know what winning the Olympic all-around can do to your life until it's hit you, and you're living that kind of life, but I love every minute of it.

"The only thing is I wish I could be around my closest family and friends like Nina and come out here more often and support her."

Liukin said she will be back in Utah in May to see Kim, which would be her third time here in six months, as she also visited in December.

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