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Gymnastics not yet out of fashion for Liukin

February 23, 2009 |  4:15 pm

Nastia Liukin tries to blend in when she goes to Southern Methodist University for the psychology and philosophy classes she began taking this semester.

That works on the days when she isn't running late so there is no time to change out of her workout clothes. Then, she said, everyone in the classes knows who she is: the 2008 Olympic champion in the women's all-around, the event that can turn gymnasts into icons.
There could be no clothing disguise for her Saturday, when Liukin came to the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ill., to join such past American Cup champions as Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug, Peter Vidmar and Vitaly Scherbo, all of whom had gone on to win Olympic gold.

Dozens of little girls plaintively squealed "Naaaaaastiiiiiiiiiaaaaaah'' in the hope of getting the attention of the young woman in a red blouse and blue jeans who was more of an attraction to them than all the other legends or the gymnasts who competed in the American Cup.

It seemed ironic, then, that Liukin's other recent public appearances have had her wearing not jeans or leotards but glamming it up in the height of fashion. 

BCBG Max Azria chose her as the image book model for the 2009 spring collection because she demonstrated in Beijing "the polished artistry, grace and casual elegance that define the Max Azria aesthetic.'' There are 44 pages of Liukin showing her "refined sensibility'' in poses only a gymnast or dancer likely would be flexible enough to strike.  And unlike many recent Olympic gymnastic champions, the 19-year-old from Texas has the long, lithe body line that designers seek and the Beijing judges liked.

That meant she also was among the glitterati at the recent New York Fashion Week, where Liukin walked the runway in a Max Azria design for the Heart Truth Red Dress collection.

"I was nervous walking a runway with heels because I didn't want to fall,'' Liukin said. "But someone told me, `If you can walk on a (balance) beam, you can walk on a runway.' ''

While she has been reveling in the whirlwind of spoils that followed her five-medal performance in Beijing, included a long-awaited first trip to Paris, Liukin made it sound as if she can't wait to be spending more time on the beam. She is back to five or six hours a day in the Plano, Texas, gym where she is coached by her father, Valeri -- but  those days lately have often been few and far between.Nastia

"I'm a little frustrated because of all the travel,'' she said. "I want to get back to where I was. I'll be back for a few weeks and think I'm progressing and then be gone from a Sunday to Wednesday.

"I'm busy every weekend from now to mid-April. I'm trying to stay in shape, but it's hard with so many obligations.''

Go to her website, and you will see them. There are 15 sponsors listed on the home page.  The site's visitor count as of Monday?  More than 11 million.

She did make it to one of the January national team training camps at the Karolyi Ranch outside Houston. That appearance left national team coordinator Martha Karolyi impressed by the attitude Liukin brought.

"She was the first to do all the little exercises, warm-up exercises, everything,'' Karolyi said. "She didn't think even the smallest thing was beneath her. This is the spirit she showed to the others.''

Liukin said she still finds it weird to hear the "two words'' -- Olympic champion -- that now are attached to her name. "The images start to replay in my head and I wonder, `Did that really happen?' '' she said.

Liukin's goal is to compete in August's U.S. Championships in Dallas, where she will be trying to qualify for the October world championships in London. Beyond that, her competitive future is unclear, even if the post-Olympic changes in the scoring system that emphasize artistry should work to her advantage, especially on floor exercise and balance beam.

"Gymnastics is still my priority,'' she said.  "As much as I am traveling, I try to keep it to the minimum.  I am so anxious to get back into competition.''

-- Philip Hersh

Photos: Above, Nastia Liukin in a dress from the Max Azria spring collection. Credit: BCBG Max Azria Group. Below, Liukin on the runway at New York Fashion Week. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews