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Liukin Hopes Teamwork Will Bring Olympic Gold to US Women Gymnasts

Anastasia or "Nastia" Liukin got an early start in gymnastics. Born in Moscow to a pair of world class Russian gymnasts in 1989, she practically grew up in the gym. She was two-and-a-half when her parents moved to the United States, and as VOA's Steve Schy reports, Nastia has developed into a talented gymnast in her own right.

Nastia Liukin must have been genetically destined to be a gymnast. Her father Valeri won four Olympic medals (two gold and two silver) for the Soviet Union at the 1988 Games in Calgary, Canada. Her mother Anna was a Soviet rhythmic gymnastics world champion in 1987.

Nastia reached her goal of making the U.S women's Olympic Gymnastics Team after placing in the top two at the Olympic Trials on June 22. The United States won the team gold medal at this year's Pacific Rim Championships and in the 2007 World Championships and Pan American Games. And Nastia Liukin believes the USA should be considered gold medal favorites in Beijing.

"Well I guess we kind of earned that being the world champions in 2007, and going into the Olympic Games we are definitely the team to beat," she said. "But I think it adds a little bit more pressure knowing everyone is trying to beat us. But we are also working five times harder to maintain that status and come out of Beijing with the gold [medal] again."

When Liukin's parents moved to the United States and became coaches, they were initially unable to afford babysitters, so Nastia went with them to the gym. It became her playground, and it was not long before the little girl's play led to her copying and performing the routines of the students.

By the time she was six, Nastia Liukin had started competing and she was just 12 years old when she became an elite gymnast. Nastia competes in the balance beam, uneven bars, floor exercise and vault and has won a total of nine World Championship medals (four gold and five silver). But she says the team gold medal is her top goal in Beijing.

"We are really focused on the team competition right now, because we work together as a team, and that has always been the number-one goal for us," she said. "And then after the team is over, then we can do our individual."

Nastia expects some of the toughest competition to come from host China.

"China is definitely our number-one competition [challenger] and it proved it at the 2006 worlds when we just missed the world title," she said. "And then in 2007 when we did win the world title, they got the silver medal. But we are just focused on doing our own thing. And when we are over there we are not really looking at them and we are not focused on what routines they are doing. We are just focused on our routines and trying to make them the best way we can. Because we know that if we do go out there and hit the routines the way we can that there is a pretty good chance we will come out on top."

Nastia Luikin says balance beam and the uneven bars are her favorite events. But she thinks some gymnasts are getting carried away and making too many passes (fast gymnastic routines from one corner of the mat to the other) in the floor exercise.

"There are some girls who do five or even six, I'm sure," said Nastia. "But I stopped at four just because I know that I want to keep the artistic part in my floor routine. And a lot of people who do more than four passes just do not even have the time in that minute and a half to do any dance moves, or poses or anything."

Nastia Luikin has already been a dominant force in the world of gymnastics for several years. Now at just 18 years of age, she hopes to help the U.S. women dominate the Beijing Olympics and bring home gold medals.