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Empowering the Next Generation of Leaders: Olympian & Entrepreneur Nastia Liukin

It’s all about the journey for Olympic gold medalist and long-time Women’s Sports Foundation friend Nastia Liukin. Rooted in her lifelong passion of gymnastics, the 2008 all-around champion continues to pursue her goals of helping younger athletes thrive through her new startup, Grander Inc., an app made up of an engaged and connected community of aspiring athletes, pro/Olympic athletes, industry experts, and inspiring content. Alongside her fiancé Matt Lombardi, the power couple founded the platform to empower the next generation of young women.

Through exclusive content from mentors, an interactive digital community and in person events, Grander allows athletes to gain insight into the world of elite athletics and reach their individual goals. Liukin clarifies that “it’s not necessarily about becoming the next Olympic gold medalist, it’s about inspiring them to be the best version of themselves.” Her extraordinary ability to channel positive vibes through any setback has given her a graceful transition into the business world.

Since retiring from gymnastics in 2012, Liukin has remained in the spotlight by performing on Dancing with the Stars, commentating for NBC as an on-air gymnastics analyst at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and graduating from NYU. Taking time out of her busy work schedule, Liukin reflects on the life lessons she has learned from the many highs and lows of her 20-year gymnastics career.

Women’s Sports Foundation: What was the inspiration for your new venture, Grander Sports and what is your long-term vision?

Nastia: The inspiration for Grander was built from my background in gymnastics and having over twenty years of knowledge from the sport along with the importance of having mentors in my own life. I was really lucky and fortunate to have my parents, who are both Olympic gymnasts and world champions as mentors. I grew up being able to watch and idolize so many gymnasts in front of my eyes, one of my teammates and closest friends Carly Patterson, who was the all-around gold medalist at the 2004 Olympic Games. It was really eye opening to be able to have this mentor at my same gym who inspired me every single day – whether it was being able to get through the obstacles or to be able to ask her questions throughout my journey in the next four years to the Olympics. It was really important in my life to have a mentor. My fiancé Matt and I started this together and he played hockey. We aligned on a lot of things and a lot of passions, one of those things being the importance of mentorship. That was kinda the idea starting it and then digging deeper and realizing how underserved women’s sports are compared to men’s sports, so we really wanted to focus on women’s sports.

The mission of Grander is to empower the next generation of women by unlocking their potential and connecting them to their heroes, their mentors, the women that inspire them in their specific sport and community.

We built this really cool platform and it’s been awesome because it empowers and inspires athletes through content and through their community as well as in person events. Gymnastics is where we first started. We really want to perfect this one playbook and then we are going to go across different sports. Our mission and our goal is to include all sports across the board. I would love to be able to get into figure skating, women’s swimming, women’s soccer, and women’s hockey. There are so many different sports that I feel would benefit from something like this and especially the next generation. It’s not necessarily about becoming the next Olympic gold medalist, it’s about inspiring them to be the best version of themselves.

WSF: Did you ever feel the pressure to live up to your parents accomplishments in the sport and in what ways did your parents influence your gymnastics career?

Nastia: I never really felt pressured. On the contrary, I always just thought it was really awesome the accomplishments they had. I just wanted to be able to do the exact same thing as my parents so I wanted to grow up to be like them rather than feel the pressure to live up to those accomplishments. To be honest, they really didn’t want me to do gymnastics when I was young, just because they realized, you know, how difficult the sport was and as the only child and only daughter, they just wanted me to be happy but my happiness really came from gymnastics. I think the experiences that they had within their gymnastics careers definitely influenced and kind of helped shape me into the athlete and the person that I grew into and that I am today.

WSF: What was your biggest obstacle on your path to the 2008 Olympic Games and how did you overcome it?

Nastia: I would say I had an ankle injury the year before the Olympics and had to get surgery, but it was the recovery into getting back into competition and then the year before the Olympics at our National Championships having the worst performance of my life, falling six times and leading up to that I was the favorite and the one to watch and the favorite to win. People  were saying I wasn’t even going to make the Olympic team, let alone win a gold medal. So I think emotionally and mentally, it was all kinds of challenges but it made me become a stronger person. Physically, I did everything I needed to do to get through the injury to get ready for the Olympic year but mentally, it was definitely a challenge to put all the negativity aside and focus on my dreams and my goals and I knew that if I believed in myself then I could achieve them.

I think it was definitely with the help of my family, parents and teammates, I realized that the people in my life who were going to get me through that really cared about me and were on this journey with me as opposed to the people that were bringing me down and didn’t know me that well. All they knew was my performance or what they saw on the competition floor, so they weren’t the ones in the gym seven hours a day six days a week. I realized I needed to stop listening to them and start focusing on the people that really supported me.

WSF: Compare the triumph of the 2008 Olympic Games with the heartbreak of not making the Olympic team in 2012.

Nastia: 2012 was actually, I would say, probably one of the most defining moments of my life and career because in 2008 winning the all-around gold medal taught me that if I work hard enough, if I believe in myself, dreams can come true and I am able to set out what I want to do. In 2012, it was falling on my face in front of 20,000 people on my very best event, which is the uneven bars, getting back up and finishing my routine and for the very first time in my career I had a standing ovation for which was the worst routine of my life. I was confused at the beginning because I figured that people are only going to love me and cheer me on and support me if I was the best so by seeing all these people still support me and love me and cheer me on, it made me realize that life wasn’t always about being the best or winning gold medals, that it’s truly about the journey and finding something that you love to do. I think that moment really taught me a lot and helped me move on to that next phase of my life.

WSF: In 2008, you became the Women’s Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year (Individual sport category). What did this award mean for you and was it your first introduction to the WSF?

Nastia: I believe it was my first time ever going to the Gala and really learning more about the Women’s Sports Foundation. I feel like the foundation has done such a great job over the years with educating women in sports, specifically about what they do. I was really honored to win the award and being around so many powerful inspiring women, it really drew me in and got me super passionate about the foundation and staying involved and supporting it. Hearing the stories and the goals of women is super inspiring and I’ve loved staying involved.

The inaugural Grander Academy event takes place January 11-12 in Anaheim, California, during the California Grand Invitational gymnastics competition. 5% of the proceeds from Grander Academy will support Women’s Sports Foundation programs that provide girls in underserved communities with access to sports. 


Olympic medalist swimmer Kim Vandenberg is a member of the WSF Digital Contributor Team.