The summer games will be my first time commentating for the Olympics. The last few years, I’ve done national championships and world championships—but the Olympics is a whole different ball game. Viewers tune in every four years and almost become obsessed with all of the sports. But I think gymnastics is an especially tough sport to understand if you’re not living it and breathing it every single day.
Believe it or not, as a female competitor, I feel that I have to learn about men’s gymnastics from scratch. We never paid any attention to the boys! It was almost forbidden so we could stay focused on our competition. The names of their skills are different, and I feel for the audience because I’ve had to learn all of that. It’s the same exact sport, but I’m shocked to know how different things are on the men’s side. I do have to say I’m lucky, though, because my dad has been able to help me since he is a gymnast.
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If you want to learn more about gymnastics, watch YouTube videos. I’ve done that my whole life. When I was about 15 years old, I remember spending hours watching the Chinese National Team perform their uneven bar skills on YouTube. They were doing such intricate skills that nobody else in the world was doing. I watched over and over again, trying to understand the technique behind it. It really helped me. (And I was thrilled when I was finally able to learn those same skills!)
For me, the interesting thing about gymnastics is that, unlike swimming or track and field, not everybody can do gymnastics to the level where you can jump on a balance beam and even attempt to do a routine. So I try to find creative ways to describe what it’s like to fly in the air, do a flip and land on a 4-inch balance beam.
I’m guessing the casual swimmer hasn’t swum the butterfly as fast as Michael Phelps, but they’ve probably swum the butterfly at some point and understand that sport. One of the hard things about gymnastics is that a lot of people will go through their whole life without being able to go upside down and do a flip on a beam. So I’m trying to recreate that experience for them. What does it feel like when you let go of the uneven bars? What are you looking for—are you looking at the ceiling when you try to catch the bar? I’m trying to find ways to relate it to things that people know.
Nastia Liukin won the all-around gymnastics gold at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and is currently finishing up her undergraduate degree at New York University.