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Nastia Liukin’s First Standing Ovation Came When She Least Expected It

BEIJING – AUGUST 15: (L-R) Silver medalist Shawn Johnson of the United States, gold medalist Nastia Liukin of the United States and bronze medalist Yang Yillin of China pose together on the podium after competing in the women’s individual all-around artistic gymnastics final at the National Indoor Stadium on Day 7 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 15, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Nastia Liukin and her U.S. teammate Shawn Johnson (now Johnson East) were the top two gymnasts in the world. There was no question before the games that it would be a two-woman duel for Individual All Around gold, and every fan on the planet was speculating which of the two would show up when it counted most.

East had the compact, muscular build of the quintessential gymnast, whereas Liukin had inherited a more lanky, flexible physique from her rhythmic gymnast mother. The 18-year-old Liukin and 15-year-old East were close friends and Beijing roommates, and had been trading the one and two spots back and forth in pre-Olympic competitions.

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KRISTIAN DOWLING/GETTY IMAGES

But once in Beijing, the more veteran Liukin was able to outperform her teammate for Olympic gold in the Individual All-Around, the ultimate individual achievement in gymnastics. Sharing that moment with her father and coach, Valeri Liukin, who had lost his one chance at all-around Olympic gold by one tenth of a point twenty years prior while competing for the Soviet Union, was both extremely special and emotional.

But almost straight away, Liukin felt a sense of sorrow saddle up next to her joy.

“Immediately I was like, ‘What now?’” she recalls to Kelley O’Hara on the Just Women’s Sports Podcast, “Waking up the next day… it was just this strange feeling of accomplishment mixed with almost sadness and glimpses of depression that it was over.”

While “post-Olympic depression” isn’t an official medical diagnosis, it accurately describes the emotional state many elite athletes experience after the games. It’s even the subject of Michael Phelps’ recent HBO documentary “Weight of Gold.” And the fact that the world’s most decorated Olympic athlete of all time has struggled to find self-worth outside of the global sporting spotlight speaks to the power of the feeling that set in for Liukin when she left Beijing in 2008.

Alongside this perplexing gloom was the fact that her friendship with East ended as soon as they left China. The battle for gold had played out and the medals had been given. One of them won, and the other had lost. As two young women whose identities were conjoined to their public personas, they couldn’t find a way to be friends when their management teams profited from constantly pitting them against each other and consumer demand seemed to revel in it.

Over the next couple years, Liukin hemmed and hawed about her gymnastics future but took advantage of many lucrative opportunities bestowed upon the reigning champion. Leading up to the 2012 London Olympics, not yet able to visualize who she was if not a gymnast, she decided to attempt the almost impossible, qualifying for a second straight Olympics at 22 years old in a sport where elite athletes have a torturously short shelf-life. She knew the chances were remote, but she also knew the regret of not trying would be worse than failing.

“I just knew that I didn’t want to be sitting in the stands [in London] thinking, ‘What if?’” she tells O’Hara.

At the 2012 Olympic trials, in what ended up being the final competitive performance of her career, Liukin began her famously challenging routine on the uneven bars, her signature event, with the poise of a seasoned veteran. But in the middle of her routine, coming around from a release she’d done countless times before, Liukin missed the bar and fell with a loud and violent smack, face down on the mat below.

“Immediately, I was embarrassed,” she confesses to O’Hara. She remembers thinking, “You are the best in the world, you are not supposed to fall on your face.”

Liukin knew in that moment that her life as an Olympic athlete was officially over. After taking a few seconds to get her bearings and ensure nothing but her ego had been damaged, she re-chalked and got back on the bars to finish her routine.

What happened next completely surprised her.

“All of a sudden I started seeing people stand on their feet,” she recalls to O’Hara, “I quickly realized these people were giving me a standing ovation. It was the first standing ovation of my entire career, for the worst routine of my entire career. That was the moment that I realized we are not defined by our success… These people are clapping and cheering just for me as a person.”

In that moment, Liukin was finally able to separate a permanent and persisting sense of self from her identity as a gymnast. She became someone who did gymnastics, instead of a gymnast with a capital G.

And her relationship with her once rival found space to grow again.

Once East and Liukin had grown into who they were beyond gymnastics, they realized how badly they missed their friendship. Reconnecting prior to East’s 2016 wedding, the two are now closer than ever, and Liukin is the godmother of East’s young son.

Looking back, Liukin now understands why the crowd stood and cheered after her abysmal mistake at the 2012 Olympic trials.

“It was the relatability,” she explains to O’Hara. “Not many people can relate to winning an Olympic gold medal. Every single person in this world can relate to falling on their face, literally or figuratively. It’s, how do I pick myself up? And how do I keep going? How do I not let that fall define me and who I am as a person?”

The unexpected sense of emptiness which followed her achieving her life’s dream in Beijing, along with the surprising standing ovation after her biggest failure four years later, bookended a valuable lesson Liukin is now sharing with the world: it’s how we navigate the journey of aiming, not the actual acquirement of the aim itself, that is the source of true meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.

The Late Sub Podcast: Can the USWNT Medal?

The USWNT takes a silly face photo during their team Olympic photo shoot
The USWNT will begin their 2024 Olympic medal hunt on Thursday. (Brad Smith/ISI/Getty Images).

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins discusses WNBA All-Star Weekend, which felt both like a celebration of the league's explosive growth over the past year and a way to set Team USA up for a particularly competitive Summer Olympics.

Later, Watkins previews the field for the upcoming Olympic soccer tournament, nominating her personal "Group of Death" and discussing whether or not the new-era USWNT could still reach medal contention despite their current rebuild under new head coach Emma Hayes.

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Team USA, Germany Play Pre-Olympic Exhibition Game in London

Team USA's 5x5 Basketball Team stands for the National Anthem before Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game
Team USA looks to rebound from Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game loss in an exhibition against Germany today. (Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

USA Basketball's 5x5 team will tip off in an exhibition against Germany in London this afternoon, getting in one last tune-up before the Summer Olympics begin.

The US is hunting an eighth-straight gold medal this year, with group stage play starting on July 29th.

Team USA's Kahleah Copper, Alyssa Thomas, Kelsey Plum, and Sabrina Ionescu gear up to face Germany in pre-Olympic exhibition.
Team USA's Kahleah Copper, Alyssa Thomas, Kelsey Plum, and Sabrina Ionescu gear up to take on Germany in London. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

US to use All-Star loss as fuel

Coming off the weekend's All-Star Game loss, the Olympians are ready to repeat history: They earned their Tokyo gold medal immediately after losing the first Team USA vs. Team WNBA All-Star Game back in 2021.

Breanna Stewart, who led Team USA with a 31-point, 10-rebound double-double on Saturday, said that the defeat "is going to help us tremendously. We don’t get that many game opportunities, [and now] we can go back and watch the film and focus on how we can continue to be better."

Today’s tilt against Germany will see the US work to lock in their defense, particularly in the paint. They'll also lean into their positional versatility before heading to Paris.

WNBA pro Satou Sabally leads Team Germany in today's pre-Olympic exhibition game against Team USA.
WNBA pro Satou Sabally helped Germany to their first-ever Olympic berth. (Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Olympic debutants Germany enter first US clash

The exhibition marks the first-ever US-Germany linkup. The German team will make their Olympic debut in Paris after decades of failing to qualify for major international competitions. Their sixth-place 2023 EuroBasket finish sent them into February’s FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, where they punched their ticket to the 2024 Games.

Leading Germany's run was two-time WNBA All-Star Satou Sabally, who put up career-high averages in points, rebounds, assists, and steals with Dallas last season. Her 20-point, 11-rebound double-double was the difference-maker in Germany's must-win 73-71 Olympic qualifying victory over Brazil.

Other German players to watch include 2022 NY Liberty draft-pick — and Sabally's sister — Nyara Sabally, along with Liberty sharpshooter Leonie Fiebich.

Where to watch the Team USA vs. Germany game

Today’s exhibition tips off at 3 PM ET with live coverage on FS1.

1v1 With Kelley O’Hara: USWNT Star Jaedyn Shaw Is Expecting “Dubs All Around”

retired uswnt star kelley o'hara interviewing san diego wave and uswnt forward jaedyn shaw
'1v1' is back with Jaedyn Shaw joining Kelley O'Hara for a conversation about the upcoming Paris Olympics. (Just Women's Sports)

In the latest episode of Just Women's Sports' 1v1 With Kelley O'Hara, San Diego Wave and USWNT star Jaedyn Shaw joins two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist Kelley O'Hara for a one-on-one conversation about the upcoming Paris Olympics.

We hear from the 19-year-old Wave FC phenom about her first impressions of new USWNT coach Emma Hayes, her experience with international competition at this point in her young career, and how she's preparing to take on the 2024 Summer Games.

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The 91st: Complete USWNT & Olympic Soccer Preview Featuring Jess McDonald

Logo for JWS USWNT Olympic show The 91st
The latest season of JWS' awarding-winning Olympics show 'The 91st' premieres today. (Just Women's Sports)

We're back! Hosts Jordan Angeli, Duda Pavao, and retired USWNT forward Jess McDonald deliver a full preview of this year's Olympic soccer tournament in Paris.

Watch for full analysis of USWNT manager Emma Hayes's coaching style, this team's shifting identity in this new USWNT era, and a projected starting XI for the team's group stage opener against Zambia. The 91st hosts also break down all three Olympic groups — including top players and teams to track throughout the tournament — plus give their predictions for the medal rounds and individual awards.

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