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Tumbling into town



Loosen your grip on the twisted stereotype of Olympic gymnasts. They're not just bitch-faced robots who can't crack a smile unless absolute perfection is reached.

No, the troupe that's flipping into town this week with the 2008 Tour of Gymnastics Superstars is a new post-Olympic generation that's having fun. The practiced athletes are also artists and entertainers who are combining their daredevil skills, graceful flexibility and practiced stage presence to produce a new kind of show.

"Everybody definitely gets more loose when they perform, and there are a lot more smiles," says Nastia Liukin, the gold medal all-around gymnast who is one of the headliners. "We really interact with the audience. We run through the crowd, we give everyone high fives, we sign autographs."

Liukin and Shawn Johnson, the balance beam gold medalist and silver all-arounder behind Liukin, are the marquis names of the show. They're joined by the entire bronze medal-winning men's team, their Beijing teammate Chellsie Memmel, five-time 1992 medalist Shannon Miller, also the United States' most decorated gymnast in history, and others. Jordan Pruitt and K.S.M. also perform.

It's not your standard elite gymnastics meet; instead it has live music, playful costumes, lights, props, group acrobatics and solo performances that combine gymnastics, dance and pop music.

"It's a different feel than a competition," Liukin says.

Liukin herself is a whole new breed of gymnast, enjoying her newfound celebrity since hauling a record-tying five gymnastics medals home from China for the United States.

Too young for the 2004 Games, she and her parents — both world or Olympic champions for the former Soviet Union — carefully managed her career in and out of her father's Dallas-area gym where she trained. She garnered VISA as an early sponsor, appearing in a much-touted commercial with Nadia Comaneci, the sport's undisputed queen. Between 2004 and 2008, Liukin grabbed nine world championships medals while also appearing in the feature film Stick It, starring Jeff Bridges as a gymnastics coach. Her fan following grew.

"That was something that I've always wanted to do, set myself apart from the others. My style is different from other gymnasts. That's how I hope people remember me," Liukin says.

By the time she stood smiling tearfully on the podium, accepting her gold medal in the women's all-around last summer, the Russian-born 18-year-old with the long, lanky figure and the will of steel had built an empire.

Liukin sees the Tour of Gymnastics Superstars as an important part of her career but also part of her beloved sport's future. The post-Games tours have been about the only way gymnasts can cash in on any Olympic success and build a following among fans who only get to glimpse the sport on television a few times or live it through the web.

"The show is really for the fans who have been supporting us through this whole journey leading up to the Olympics," she says.
Sandra Svoboda

Tour of Gymnastics Superstars at 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 2, at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Dr., Detroit; 313-396-7000; $29.50 to $79.50.

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