Nastia Liukin: The Veteran

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In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Mark Graham. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

Her likeness graces the giant mural on the front glass of her father's World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Plano, but it's still different somehow, walking through the lobby and seeing Nastia Liukin posing on a four-inch wide beam as the photographer balances perilously on an adjacent ladder, snapping pictures of the 22-year-old in her trademark pink leotard.

Maybe it's the celebrity. She'll be living in your flatscreen soon, most likely, a strong contender to return to the Olympics this summer in London, where the Russian-born Texan hopes to defend and build on her five-medal effort in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

She's beautiful, too, and not just movie-star, model beautiful, though she is that. It's more. Even balancing motionless, looking almost uninterested, bored, every contour of Liukin's body is perfect, from her outstretched manicured fingernails to her toes curled just so beneath her lead foot, every line straight save for the gentle curve of her spine.

She was made for this, perhaps literally. Both of her parents were Soviet world-champion gymnasts, and her father was the first man to ever land a triple back flip off the floor. Liukin has been perfecting her craft for the better part of two decades now, flipping, kicking, tumbling and jackknifing around the uneven bars, atop the balance beam, through the floor exercise. She's gotten so good, so perfect that she walked away from Beijing with the all-around gold, placed silver in three events and earned a bronze. You could hardly blame her if the bronze was in a drawer somewhere.

This is gymnastics, though, where some girls hit their peak before puberty, in which the beauty of the moving body is judged to a thousandth of a point, and the end can come at any time. That's why her friend and closest rival, 20-year-old American Shawn Johnson, retired last month. That's why Liukin knows these are her last Olympics, her last chance to cement her place as one of the best American gymnasts of all time. Maybe that's why, poised on the balance beam, her mind is elsewhere.

See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

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