Nastia Luikin: Olympian and Dog Lover
Does life ever get lonely for an Olympic gold medal winner? Not when there are dogs around!
Eve Adamson |
Posted: August 8, 2012, 10 a.m. EDT
Born in Russia, Nastia Liukin grew up in her parents’ gym in Plano, Texas, playing on the equipment. Although her parents, both champion gymnasts, didn’t plan for their daughter to follow in their footsteps, Liukin was born for the spotlight. As she grew to become a five-time Olympic medalist and four-time world champion, Liukin’s loyal buddy was her first dog, an English Springer Spaniel named Layla.
"I was an only child, so Layla was like my sibling,” she says. "She always slept with me in my room, and every Friday and Saturday, when we only had one gymnastics practice, we took Layla to the park to play Frisbee after practice was over. That was her favorite thing.” As active as the rest of the family, Layla also loved diving for rings in the family pool. "My parents would throw the diving rings for both me and Layla,” Liukin says.
Layla was always there for Liukin. "She could tell when I had a rough day,” Liukin says. "She would lie right beside me when I was feeling down.” After Liukin hurt her ankle, Layla seemed to sense the injury. "She came right up to my foot to lick and sniff it,” Liukin adds. "She could feel something wasn’t right.” When Layla grew old, she developed cancer while the family was building a new house. "We knew she wasn’t going to last much longer, but we brought her to the new house and let her walk around inside,” Liukin says. "We wanted her to be a part of it. We wanted her spirit to live on with our family in that house. I’ll never forget that day.”
After Layla passed at age 13, the family brought home a yellow Labrador Retriever puppy named Lexi. A few weeks later, Liukin’s father came into Liukin’s room with a chocolate Lab puppy. "‘I couldn’t resist,’ he whispered. ‘He’s just so cute.’ I said, ‘Does Mom know?’ He said, ‘Not yet.’ So we brought the puppy into the living room,” Liukin recalls. "My mom just looked at us. Then she said, ‘Why is my dog changing colors?’ We pleaded for the puppy and she said, ‘Oh, no, absolutely not, we are not having two dogs.’”
Fortunately, Liukin and her father argued successfully that Lexi shouldn’t be alone all day. The Liukins often took Lexi and Rex to the gym, where the Lab siblings ran around under the balance beams and played with the kids. "Then they started getting big and having the occasional accident on the exercise mats,” Liukin says. "This was OK since my dad owned the gym, but nobody else was allowed to bring their dogs after that.”
A few months before the 2008 Olympics, Liukin convinced her parents that she needed her own dog, and a Toy Poodle named Ella joined the family. "I wanted to name her Bella, but then I didn’t want people to think she was named after (Romanian gymnastics coach) Béla Károlyi,” she says. "Of course, I promised I would take care of her, feed her, walk her, and train her. But then I went to the Olympics, so of course my parents ended up taking care of her. My dad fell in love with her. She became like his second daughter.”
Now that Liukin lives on her own, she’s ready for her own dog. "I don’t think my dad will let me take Ella,” she says. "Every time I take her out for the day, he calls me constantly, asking what she’s doing.” Because Liukin travels so much, she’s considering a small dog that could travel with her. But large or small, she knows there will be a dog. "I’ve always felt a connection to dogs, more than any other animal,” she says. "I’m a dog person, so it’s just a matter of which dog will come into my life next.”
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