Nastia Liukin doesn’t walk like the rest of us. While she’s as capable as putting one foot in front of the other like you or I, she’s also just as apt to flip onto her hands and caper about upside down—one moment a perfectly straight line, the next, legs scissored into splits, one headed toward the North Pole, one toward the South, toes perfectly pointed, all executed seemingly as effortlessly as the rest of us breathe.
As the 28.7 million Americans who watched this summer’s Beijing Olympics know, Liukin parlayed that extraordinary athletic prowess into a gold medal in all-around gymnastics, one of only three U.S. women ever to do so. Now, she’s looking to make the transition from balance beam to brand spokesperson equally as fluently.
“Gymnastics is the sport where, every four years, America gets to pick its sweetheart,” says Evan Morgenstein, president and chief executive officer of Premier Management Group and the man who’s crafting the strategy for Brand Nastia. “It’s unique in that you get to see the most beautiful of the young female athletes combined with a true sense of athleticism, sports camaraderie and competition.”
“It’s one of the few sports that’s a mix of beauty and performance,” agrees Jason Dial, director of global sports marketing for Procter & Gamble, for whom Liukin acts as a spokesperson for Cover Girl, Herbal Essences and Secret. “It’s the number-one viewed sport in the Olympics. People love the blend of beauty and performance.”
Liukin has already felt the love. In short order after winning gold, Wheaties announced she would grace its iconic cereal box. She beamed out from the cover of Us magazine with sister gymnast Shawn Johnson, then regaled Jay Leno with tales of her gold-medal win. She dished with radio and TV host Ryan Seacrest about her love of the hit show Gossip Girl, and was subsequently invited to make a guest appearance on the show by a producer who happened to see her at dinner that evening. Fashion week found her front row at such shows as Peter Som and BCBG Max Azria, then she embarked on a 37-city tour of gymnastics superstars.
Heady stuff, to be sure, but thus far, Liukin seems as bemused by her success as beholden to it. “Being recognized is still kind of weird for me,” she says, calling the experience of seeing her face on a Wheaties box in the grocery store “surreal. Nothing can prepare you. I’m going with the flow and just trying to enjoy every moment of it.”
Of course, some things have changed. Prior to the Olympics, Liukin capped off her girlishly loopy autograph with a heart; now she includes the five Olympic rings incorporated into 2008 with the word “Gold” written underneath. Like most young women her age, she loves music, movies and shopping, and is still new enough to the celeb scene to be awed that people clamor to get near her. “During fashion week, it was so weird that people wanted to meet me,” she laughs.
“I couldn’t believe how fast the show was,” she continues, when asked her assessment of being a first-time fashionista. “I was with [tennis player] Maria Sharapova and she told me it’s all about the preshow, the interview and the pictures!”
Long, lean and willowy in a sport where the athletes tend toward the prepubescent, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Liukin personifies fresh young beauty. But those who saw her compete in the Beijing games know she’s got a game face as inscrutable as a Xi’an warrior. Liukin’s ability to focus during competition is legendary. Her mother gave her the book The Secret shortly before the Olympics, and its message about visualizing success resonated. “I’ve always been so focused when I compete,” she says. “I don’t like to look around me. I do a lot of visualization. I think about my routines over and over and the right way to perform them, from sticking the dismount to saluting at the end.”
Now, she’s bringing that same single-mindedness to bear on her life beyond gymnastics. Liukin—who is a five-time Olympic medalist, four-time world champion, nine-time world medalist, four-time U.S. national champion and, in 2008, also won both the Pacific Rim and American Cup titles—counts AT&T, Adidas, Visa and P&G as sponsors, all of whom signed the 19-year-old before she won gold. She’s also got deals with the jeans company Vanilla Star, the sports equipment manufacturer AAI and Beacon Street Girls, a social networking site aimed at teens. In the spring, she’ll appear in ads for MaxAzria, while a fragrance deal and line of jewelry are in the planning stages, though nothing has yet been signed.
The deals range in scope: For P&G, Liukin acts as a spokesperson for the various brands. For Vanilla Star, she is featured in the ad campaign and is also introducing a denim line under the moniker Nastia’s Gold. Her goal—representing a new direction in sports marketing—is to be more than just a talking head. It’s to be a vested partner. “She owns equity in some of the companies and projects,” says Morgenstein. “You’re not having to go through a sieve of endorsement deals forever, where you get one one millionth of a penny for every dollar a product you endorsed brought in. There’s so much opportunity now for athletes to take the risk and be rewarded for it.”
Still, it’s a feat that’s as difficult to pull off as a full twisting double back. “Our biggest question is, how long is the window?” says Mark Levy, president of Vanilla Star Jeans, questioning how long an athlete can maintain public interest. “We think Nastia will turn into the exception because of her goals and what she stands for. She’s aspirational because she wants to prove that any girl can live her dream, and her appearance on Gossip Girl will definitely rekindle excitement.”
To transcend her life beyond the gym, Team Liukin has created a brand positioning centered around promoting healthy living for young women. “Her message is about fighting teen obesity, getting kids active, giving kids the opportunity to have fun and be healthy,” says Morgenstein, who speaks as quickly as a Liukin tumbling pass. “There’s a certain reality to how sports works, and our goal is to put her in a position where her success isn’t tied to sports.”
To be sure, it’s possible: Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Mary Lou Retton all have widespread appeal beyond athletics. P&G’s Dial thinks Liukin has crossover potential, too, particularly because, like Barack Obama, her story epitomizes the American Dream. “At the end of the day, the appeal has to go beyond the sport,” says Dial, “and for Nastia, there’s a wonderful story of how she’s Russian born and has a long lineage in gymnastics. She has the potential to broaden her appeal and connect with consumers and fans in a way that goes beyond gymnastics.”
Born in Russia to a gold-medal gymnast father and rhythmic gymnast mother, Liukin and her family moved to the U.S. with little money and the dream to open a gym. They went first to New Orleans, then to Dallas, where they opened a facility they named WOGA (World Olympics Gymnastics Academy). “We didn’t have money for a babysitter, so the gym was my second house,” says Liukin, who was four when it opened, six when she entered her first competition and 12 when she made the U.S. Junior National team. Today, there are three WOGA gyms in Texas.
Whether or not Liukin defends her Olympic title in 2012 is still up in the air. She maintains an unabiding passion for the sport—when asked if she ever gets sick of the gym, she laughs and answers, “Um, no, not really”—but is a realist, also. “I would love to train and compete as long as I can, but it’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen next year,” Liukin says. “The year 2008 isn’t over yet and I’m trying to enjoy the success.”