Nastia Liukin Predicts Simone Biles Can 'Leave Tokyo with 5 Gold Medals' as She Breaks Down the U.S. Gymnasts
"For so many of them not being able to train for months, a year before the Olympics, is crazy. What they have done truly is remarkable," Liukin tells PEOPLE about the women's gymnastics team
Nastia Liukin calls Team USA's women's gymnastics roster the "hardest team to make in the world" — and she should know.
Liukin, as a five-time Olympic medalist, is more than qualified to help audiences understand the scores and routines of Team USA's gymnasts. On top of that, the NBC Sports broadcaster, 31, often uses her own experience as a former all-around champion to inform fans of what the gymnasts might be thinking as well as what pressures the athletes could be feeling.
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"There's nothing like an Olympic Game," Liukin tells PEOPLE, sharing that one of her passions after competing in 2008 in Beijing has been serving as a gymnastics commentator and "being able to help tell the athletes' stories and share things with our audience and the viewers that hopefully help them understand the sport a little bit better."
Liukin's own Olympic resume is laden with medals: She won more than any gymnast in Beijing and tied the U.S. gymnastics record for the most at a single Games, with five total including one gold, three silver and one bronze.
Now going into her ninth year as a network analyst, Liukin is focused on a different sort of gold standard in her TV role, in how she describes athletes and also how she translates their skills — even "having to sometimes remember like, 'Okay, wait, not everybody knows that, because not everyone's spent 25 years training in gymnastics.' "
"My focus is to put myself in the athlete's shoes and know that, I've been there, I know what they're going through. Both in the sense of when things are going their way, but even more so when things aren't and when they do have a mistake and if they do fall, trying to maybe explain why or what's going on in their minds right now," she explains.
Below, Liukin breaks down the strengths of each member of the U.S. women's gymnastics roster and what fans can expect when they compete in Tokyo starting July 27.
Simone Biles, 24
"If Simone has a 'weak' event, I think the uneven bars would be it. But at the same time, she is still just so incredibly good and any other country would have loved to have her and she probably would be some of some country's best athletes on that event," Liukin says of Biles, who is arguably the greatest gymnast of all time and a heavy favorite for the all-around title, which she previously won in Rio in 2016.
"In my opinion, I think Simone can leave Tokyo with five gold medals. You take the team competition, the all-around, vault, beam, [bars] and floor, and she is the best in the world on all five of those," Liukin explains. "All of that is her strength. Besides bars being just her 'weaker event' ... don't get me wrong, she's still really incredible on it."
And speaking about Biles completing another Yurchenko double pike this year, Liukin says of the challenging vault: "I know she didn't do it at the Olympic trials because, first of all, there wasn't really a reason for her to have to do it. And not that there's really a reason for her to have to necessarily do it in Tokyo, but I know she wants to."
"I know that's kind of the game plan, from my understanding in talking to them, and I think that that was extremely smart of them to do," Liukin continues. "But the goal is obviously to do it. If she lands on her feet there, then it's going to be named after her once again. She's again doing skills that nobody in the entire world is doing or even thought would be possible. It's pretty remarkable."
Jordan Chiles, 20
"Her consistency is extremely important," Liukin says of Chiles, who grew up in Washington and trained in Texas with Biles. "In a team finals, three athletes go up on each apparatus and all three scores have to count. So if you have a fall or if you have a mistake, you still have to count that score. Knowing that, you want to make sure that you can rely on someone. And Jordan is extremely reliable."
Three years ago, Chiles said she felt exhausted and deflated in the sport, even almost quitting altogether. But Biles convinced her to train in Texas. Since then, she made a name for herself at the U.S. Classic and U.S. Champions, leading up to being selected on the Tokyo team.
"The way Jordan competes is always with calmness and even though this is her first Olympic games, she's had tons of competition experience. And I think being able to train with Simone and be right along her side throughout this entire process has really helped [Chiles] understand what to expect now," Liukin says.
"Similar to Simone, Jordan's great in the all-around. That's going to be tough because, for every single event final, like all-around finals and the individual events, only the top two per country can actually qualify. So you're going to be having some Team USA members that could maybe in the qualification round place third — but behind two of their teammates and only two per country can go. It's unfortunate, obviously. These are the rules. But that shows the depth of this country and how strong they all are."
Suni Lee, 18
"Suni's great in the all-around. Just take a look at the Olympic trials and the results that she had. She got second place behind Simone," Liukin says, noting that the Minnesota native is "out of this world" when it comes to uneven bars.
Lee, who is the youngest member on the roster, will be without her family in Tokyo due to COVID-19 protocols, which barred international guests from attending. Lee has relied on her family's support throughout her competitions and after a tough 2020, when she lost two relatives to COVID and as her father continues to recover from a paralyzing 2019 injury.
Liukin is aware of what it can mean to an athlete, not having their family with them in Tokyo.
"In a year nobody else has ever experienced, this whole entire world has literally gone through a year like no other. I think it's going to be even more important than ever before to try my absolute best to be able to be there for them as much as possible because the families aren't allowed to go," Liukin says of giving her own support to the women.
Grace McCallum, 18
"Grace brings something extremely important to the team. She's so reliable, in her energy and in the way that she competes. She's always super calm, confident, consistent. And she really is great everywhere," Liukin shares of McCallum, who like Lee is a Minnesota native.
"No matter what, somebody could have something happen and you need somebody to be able to step up to the plate. Grace is more than capable of doing that at any time. Just looking again at the [trials] results, she got fourth place in the entire country. And so in my opinion, very well deserved that fourth spot. She was consistent all the way around. I think she really helps round out that team," Liukin adds.
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Jade Carey, 21
The Phoenix native was among the firsts to be a shoo-in for Tokyo when in early 2020 she secured one of the new individual spots on the Olympic team following her performance in a new FIG series called Apparatus World Cup. (An individual spot means she cannot compete in the team event.)
Speaking about the new qualifying system, Liukin says if Carey is "fully healthy, healed and capable of doing the all-around, she absolutely should."
"This is the first time that they've ever done this at Olympics and they've already said that they're not doing it again because it has just been so confusing for everybody in the way that these spots work," Liukin explains. "It's going back to what it was for the next Olympics already."
MyKayla Skinner, 24
The other individual spot went to Skinner, who is the oldest member on the roster and was an alternate for the Rio Games.
"Yes, they're 'specialists' in a sense of they excel, both of them really excel on vault and floor," Liukin says of Skinner and Carey. "Again, it's two per country. They're part of Team USA at the Olympics. They are not on the team in the sense of, for the team final they will not be competing. So if they win the gold medal, unfortunately as individualists, they're not part of that team."
Overall, Liukin knows all six athletes will be ones to watch.
"I've always obviously admired and just had such admiration for really every single athlete, no matter the sport. But being able to watch them at Olympic trials, I was so proud," she says. "I was so proud to see what they had been able to do after a year of not competing and having gyms were on lockdown. For so many of them not being able to train for months, a year before the Olympics, is crazy. What they have done truly is remarkable."
To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics beginning July 23 and the Tokyo Paralympics beginning Aug. 24 on NBC.
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