Will gold turn gymnast Liukin into the next ‘Mary Lou’?

AS the new queen of gymnastics, Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin (pic) can now retire at the age of 18, put her dainty feet up and wait for the money to roll in. Or will it?

Liukin tumbled her way into American hearts by joining compatriot Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson as the only US women to have won the coveted Olympic all-round gymnastics crown.

For more than two decades, 1984 champion Retton set the standard for little girls who took up the sport in the hope of becoming the next “Mary Lou”.

On Friday, Liukin not only added her footprints to the gymnastics walk of fame but also handed American marketing men with their new dream product.

Liukin's acrobatic performance was worth 63.325 to the judges and possibly millions of dollars in endorsement deals.

“Standing next to the podium and hearing Olympic champion next to my name was a dream come true,” Liukin said.

Unlike her predecessors she arrived in Beijing with at least eight major sponsors backing her but after striking gold, brand Liukin will probably be worth millions of dollars more.

If Liukin wants to get a glimpse of what could lie in wait for her, the 18-year-old needs to look no further than Retton.

“Every time I leave the 2-mile radius of where I live people are coming up to me,” Retton said. “They still remember me and want my autograph or want a picture. It's great.”

Thanks to her exploits 24 years ago, the 40-year-old still delivers motivational speeches to corporate America and enjoys a multi-million-dollar lifestyle.

But unlike Retton, Patterson achieved her feat on foreign soil in 2004 and has failed to have the same impact.

She struggled to get a music career off the ground in 2005, with her demo tape never seeing the light of day. Knowing that the 2008 Olympics will again throw her into the spotlight, she is having a second stab as a singer.

Both Retton and Patterson quit the sport after they captured gold, but in a recent interview, Liukin said she had no plans of folding her leotard away even if she won the title.

“I don't want to be finished after the Olympic Games. I would love to compete as long as my body will let me,” said Liukin. “A lot of people are in it for the money and sponsors but that's never been my goal.”

Liukin will also need to take note that not every US gold-medal winning gymnast is as fortunate as Retton.

Kerri Strug became an instant heroine in 1996 when she landed her vault on her already damaged ankle to hand the US their first Olympic women's team title at the Atlanta Games.

She too was expected to cash in on her overnight fame but it did not take Strug long to realise that her moment in the spotlight was not going to last forever.

“There's maybe one or two women gymnasts that have been able to capitalise on their Olympic experience and make a long-term career out of and that's it,” said Strug, who works as a programme manager for the Department of Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice in Washington.

“It's certainly not going to take care of you for the rest of your life.” – Reuters

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