Nastia Liukin likes a challenge, but this might be pushing it.
The gold medal-winning Olympic gymnast accepted an invitation to compete this season on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, which begins at 7 p.m. Monday, but she is determined not to let it interfere with her college education.
Liukin, who grew up in Plano, is a junior at New York University, majoring in sports marketing. She’s taking a full course load this semester (on the day of our interview last week, her first class began at 9 a.m. and the last one ended at 9 p.m.).
She rehearses with dance partner Derek Hough, who is busy headlining a show at Radio City Music Hall in New York, whenever they both can clear a block of time together on their schedules.
And she plans to fly to Los Angeles on show days to compete, then take a red-eye flight back every time so she won’t miss a minute of classes.
That’s ambitious, impractical and maybe a little bit nuts. But those are some of the qualities that enabled her to win five medals, including the all-around gold, at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
“I guess that drive in me has helped me all these years,” Liukin says. “Maybe that will be useful again. I’m going to need all the help I can get because, in terms of dancing, it is all new to me.
“I’ve never taken dance class in my life. I don’t know anything about dance. So it’s going to be a challenge.”
This marks the 10th year and the 20th season of the popular ballroom dance-competition show.
Liukin says she has been a huge fan for a long time, but her first impulse when invited to participate was to say no.
“School is really important to me,” says Liukin, 25. “This has been a big goal of mine, to graduate from NYU, so I didn’t want to take a semester off.”
If Hough, a five-time Dancing With the Stars champion, hadn’t already been in town, starring in New York Spring Spectacular with Laura Benanti and the Rockettes, and available to be Liukin’s partner, she would have passed.
“I was so excited when I learned Derek would be my partner,” she says. “He’s so talented. Amazing isn’t even the right word for him, because his choreography is just out of this world. It’s so creative, so unique.”
For his part, Hough says, “I’m just happy to be able to be part of this, especially with such an amazing girl, who I think is going to bring a lot to this season.”
Athletes in their prime often have an advantage on this show, but Liukin stresses that she has a long way to go before she can hope to hoist the championship Mirror Ball trophy (which is gold this season, in case you believe in omens).
“There’s a lot for me to learn and it’s actually been quite a struggle,” Liukin says. “Ballroom dance moves are completely different from the way I was used to moving in my floor routines.
“There’s a lot of muscle memory from 20 years of gymnastics that I have to adjust.”
Traipsing across the floor in high-heeled shoes won’t be a picnic, either. She is accustomed to performing in her bare feet.
All these adjustments are happening with a fast-approaching deadline. At the time of her interview last Tuesday, Liukin and Hough had had only four days of rehearsal together.
“Winning would be amazing, but that’s something I’ve got to keep in the back of my mind,” Liukin says.
“For now, I’m just excited about this journey. I’m excited to get to know Derek. I’m excited to get to learn how to dance.”
Dancing With the Stars
▪ 7 p.m. Monday
▪ WFAA/Channel 8
The ballroom competition
Here’s a rundown of the 11 other celebrities competing this season on Dancing With the Stars.
Noah Galloway: Iraq war veteran, double-amputee (left arm and left leg) and motivational speaker. Dancing with Sharna Burgess
Robert Herjavec: Millionaire businessman who’s known as the “nice Shark” on ABC’s Shark Tank. Dancing with Kym Johnson.
Patti LaBelle: Grammy-winning R&B and pop music icon. Dancing with Artem Chigvintsev.
Riker Lynch: Member of the sibling music act R5. Dancing with Allison Holker.
Charlotte Mckinney: Model and actress (Carl’s Jr. Super Bowl commercial and Joe Dirt 2 co-star). Dancing with Keo Motsepe.
Redfoo: Member of the electronic dance music rapper duo LMFAO. Dancing with Emma Slater.
Michael Sam: Texas-born college football standout and the NFL’s first openly gay draft pick (briefly a member of the Dallas Cowboys practice squad last year). Dancing with Peta Murgatroyd.
Willow Shields: Actress (Primrose in the “Hunger Games” movies). Dancing with Mark Ballas.
Suzanne Somers: Actress (Three’s Company, Step by Step), ThighMaster spokesperson and bestselling author. Dancing with Tony Dovolani.
Chris Soules: Reality TV personality (ABC’s The Bachelor). Dancing with Witney Carson.
Rumer Willis: Actress daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Dancing with Valentin Chmerkovskiy.