Monday, September 7, 2009

Know a Coach - Valeri Liukin

For the first installment of "Know a Coach," I'm going to begin with the current most prominent name in gymnastics coaching. Although it can be argued (successfully) that the Liukins are saturating gymnastics coverage these days, I think Valeri's topical relevance makes him a logical first pick.

Valeri Liukin

Valeri Liukin was born in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan on December 17th, 1966. He began his gymnastics training at seven years old, and at sixteen, he left his parents' home to train in Moscow.

Valeri's decorated career was propelled by his performance at the 1987 European Championships, where he became the first gymnast to compete a triple back somersault. The skill is named after him in the code of points, and launched him into gymnastics history.

See the skill below; it's his first pass. It's not flawless, but DAMN he gets some air. Amazing. According to the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame, the Liukin is still considered the hardest skill ever performed by a gymnast. I'm sure someone could debate that, but I'm not going to try.

Liukin went on to compete at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, falling short of the all-around gold by a mere tenth of a point. That tenth can come down to the very tiniest of form errors or mistakes - a mini-step on a landing; a handstand on the highbar that doesn't quite hit; a flight element that could have been a tad higher. In essence, it's the difference between gold and silver, the itty-bitty details that quantitate perfection.

Valeri met his lovely wife, World Champion rhythmic gymnast Anna Kochneva, in 1987, and the pair of genetically gifted gymnasts married in December of 1988. A mere ten months later, they welcomed daughter Anastasia into the world.

Despite the formation of his young new family, Valeri continued competing through the 1991 World Championships, where he took bronze in the all-around. In 1992, Valeri, Anna and little Nastia moved to the United States in pursuit of a better life. They first settled in New Orleans, but found the atmosphere incompatible with their goals of establishing a successful gymnastics school. Along with friend (and future subject of Know a Coach), Yevgeny Marchenko, Valeri flew to Plano, Texas to explore the possibility of setting up shop out west.

Once Valeri and Yevgeny decided that Plano was the right setting for their venture, it became a matter of funding. Valeri sold some property, but the capital wasn't enough. So when an opportunity came along to win $15,000 in a costumed gymnastics event, the resourceful Liukin went for it. Fifteen grand later, the Liukins and Marchenko were ready to get the gym off the ground.

The family lived modestly while Valeri and Yevgeny remodeled an old supermarket on Parker Road. On February 1st, 1994, WOGA opened its doors and history was made.

Liukin's and Yevgeny's dream now boasts three separate locations—the original, in Plano, as well as gyms in Dallas and Frisco. The two coaches and their staffs have produced two Olympic Champions (Carly Patterson in 2004; Nastia Liukin in 2008), and currently have three athletes on the Senior International Elite Team and three on the Junior International Elite Team.

While incredibly successful now, Liukin is a man who paid his dues. A ground-breaking and decorated gymnast, Valeri rose from humble beginnings to international renown on multiple fronts. Both his great talent as a gymnast and his skills as a coach have defined his place in gymnastics history, even as he continues to write his part of that story.


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