Intern Courtney ended up at Dallas-Fort Worth International yesterday -- just in time for Nastia Liukin's meet-and-greet with the media and a few hundred well-wishers. Her account, along with some photos of the gold medalist and the assembled masses, after the jump. --Robert Wilonsky
My ears are still ringing from the screams of preteen girls -- and, yeah, boys too -- lined up for Nastia Liukin's homecoming. My elbows are a little sore too: Well before she landed, they were jammed into the reception area outside Gate B37, jostling for positions. Nastia, of course, brings home five Olympic medals, including the coveted all-around gold -- one of only three Americans to bring home that prize, along with fellow World Olympic Gymnastics Academy gymnast Carly Patterson in 2004 and perfect-10 gal Mary Lou Retton 20 years prior. Also in Nastia’s purple bag were three silver medals and a bronze. Mom Anna told the masses that dad Valeri would get stopped at every checkpoint and have to take out the medals.
The walls of the airport reception area were covered with homemade welcome-home posters for U.S. troops, who're never greeted with such a spectacular reception upon their return home. But Gate B37 was a-buzz with “gymnatchis,” as 3-year-old Ali said while bouncing around waiting on Nastia. The bustle of reporters, little kids and teenagers and moms and their cameras all seemed to settle in around 3:50 p.m.
At 4, the crowd went wild: “Carly! CARLY! CAAARRRLLYYY!” Patterson strolled in, sporting an Olympic rings tattoo on her left ankle and flowers for Nastia.
By 4:28, the crowd has grown to a few hundred, and it erupted in cheers as Liukin, wearing jeans and a navy tee with Chinese symbols on the front, walked in accompanied by her folks. Nastia was running behind schedule, with good reason: She had stopped to meet with troops about to depart overseas. She seemed a bit shocked at the turnout; she said she didn’t expect that many people, just some teammates and coaches. Obviously Nastia didn’t get the memo. Nastia smiled and posed for pictures.
She offered some words of wisdom and encouragement for the young gymnasts in the throng; she said “Even when the times get tough, they’re gonna get better.”
But there were serious issues to be raised as well: As we figured yesterday, there were indeed questions about fresh allegations that China’s He Kexin, who took gold to Liukin's silver in the uneven bar event, is indeed 14 and not 16, as Chinese officials insist. When asked about the hacker's proof that the Chinese have been trying to disappear documents that prove He is underage, Valeri said, “We play fair at this Olympic games. ... If somebody cheated, shame on them.”
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The 2012 Olympics aren’t out of the picture for the teen tumbler; she said she’s just “taking it one day at a time.” Till then, she'll spend time with her grandparents, who flew in from Russia. And on August 30 Parker will host a parade in Nastia's honor. Then, on September 1, she hits the road with the 2008 Tour of Gymnastics, along with fellow gold medalist Shawn Johnson.
Twenty minutes after she arrived, Nastia was outs -- ushered through the mob to her stretch limo and the posse of police were waiting to escort her back to Collin County. I asked a few teenage boys waiting to leave the airport whether the wait to see Nastia was worth it. They said it was, like, no big deal as they get to see her every day at WOGA. I asked where their WOGA gear was; every other WOGA gymnast in the joint was covered in the stuff. One kid -- couldn't have been more than 12, 13 -- lifted his shirt to show off his flat stomach. "It’s right here,” he said, then vaulted out the door. --Courtney Clenney