Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic champion who is 5-foot-3 and looks like she would tip over if she wore all her medals around her neck, says she likes challenges.
The American has done an Ono-half on uneven bars, a front aerial to Arabesque on beam and double front on floor before shocking the leotards off the world by winning the all-around gold at the Beijing Games.
Now Liukin is chalking up for one of the most difficult routines: saving Cal State Fullerton women's gymnastics.
She knows that Titans gymnasts, even with achy and taped-up ankles, are balancing atop a beam. She also has learned that California can't seem to balance a state budget that would leave women's gymnastics at state schools with a strong leg to stand on.
So Liukin has volunteered to help the Titans' cause by appearing Sunday for the program's $500-a-plate fundraising luncheon. More than 25 of the 40 tickets have been reserved.
The luncheon will precede the 13th Southern California College Women's Gymnastics Preview, which will begin at 2 p.m. PST in Titan Gym and feature an exhibition by teams from Cal State Fullerton and UCLA — Southern California's only Division I state college programs left standing. More than 400 $10 tickets have been sold.
"We're trying to save ourselves and Nastia is helping," said Titans coach Jill Hicks, who needs her program to raise about $270,000 by April 2010 and receive another $270,000 in pledges by May 2010 to fund itself for the next two seasons.
"In my opinion, it's really sad to know that it (the Titans program being eliminated) could possibly happen," Liukin said. "But I hope that with this event, and maybe a few others, we will do everything possible to keep the program alive."
Liukin, 20, is appearing for free, for the good of her sport and for the principle that young girls "be able to have that goal and dream about getting a full scholarship to such a wonderful school," she said.
Liukin isn't from Southern California. She often visits here, though. She lives and trains in Parker, Texas, and has deferred enrolling in Southern Methodist University, where she would like to study international business, so that she can continue her gymnastics career.
She's passionate about having young women be able to continue a life rich in sports and college education. She was surprised to hear from Hicks and Bruins gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field about how California's fiscal crisis affected college gymnastics.
The Bruins' program has stable footing because UCLA is, well, UCLA. Football and men's basketball fill its athletic program coffers enough to fund the so-called Olympic sports.
But the Titans' athletic program operates on a smaller scale and with a smaller budget. The Titans athletic program doesn't have football to pump in revenue, and a nationally renowned baseball program can only do so much.
Facing state-mandated cuts to the school's athletic budget, Titans athletic director Brian Quinn gave wrestling and gymnastics a chance to save themselves by raising all the money it would take the school to afford the programs.
USA Gymnastics, the sport's governing body, has donated $75,000. Friends and family of Titans gymnasts have opened their wallets. The nation's gymnastics community has lent its support.
Now Liukin, the world's voice of gymnastics as the athlete representative for the FIG (International Federation of Gymnastics), is speaking up.
"I have a huge passion for gymnastics," Liukin said. "Any time that I have the opportunity to try to help a program like this, it is really exciting for me. ... I hope I will be able to help everyone and make a difference somehow."
Last week, Liukin was in Cancun to attend her first conference as the FIG representative. Then she flew to Kentucky to host a gymnastics clinic and luncheon this week for a few kids from the Children's Miracle Network.
On Saturday, Liukin will fly across the country again to be in Fullerton to help save the Titans' program.
Like Liukin said, she enjoys challenges.