Nastia Liukin didn’t really understand what she’d done until she stepped off a plane in her home state of Texas. It was 2008, and she had just become a household name after winning an Olympic gold medal in the gymnastics all-around competition in Beijing.
At the airport, a crowd greeted her with cheers. Later, her hometown honored her with a parade. For the next several months, she flew around the country for talk shows, commercial shoots and gymnastics exhibitions. But then, suddenly, it was all over. The attention and opportunities faded. A few years later, Liukin retired from gymnastics for good, and that was that.
“When you achieve your lifelong dream at 18—don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing—but like, now what?” Liukin, now 31, says looking back on that wild ride. “Where do I go from here? I have the rest of my life to live. It was scary. I was lost.”
Until she soon found this newfangled thing called Instagram. Liukin now has a new career as an influencer on a platform that didn’t even exist when she stood atop that podium. She has more than a million followers, for whom she documents a life of hanging out on the beach, commentating on NBC or promoting her new shoe line with the APL brand. She has signed deals with nearly a dozen brands, from leotards to hair ties and coconut water. They’ve become her primary source of income.
Much like other athletes, Liukin experienced how fleeting Olympic stardom can be. It’s especially difficult for standouts in sports that really only break through into the mainstream every four years during the games. But an increasing number are staying relevant long after becoming national heroes by parlaying their fame through social media. When the world’s premier athletes leave Japan after the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics this August, those who’ve managed to capture the attention of fans will have a small window to figure out what to do with their newfound followings.
“Every four years you get the nation behind you,” says Wale Ogunleye, head of sports and entertainment at UBS Group AG. “Companies seize on that.”
Ogunleye, a former NFL player, works with financial advisers and athletes to manage their money. Once athletes were able to hold more sway over their narratives on social platforms, it opened opportunities to build their own fanbases independently of teams and leagues. The more you build that up, the more you can charge for ads and endorsements. “Right now, you don’t have to be the Michael Phelps of the world to generate wealth,” he said, referring to the American swimmer.
It certainly does help, though. The more obscure the sport, the harder it is to gain traction. Those competing in artistic gymnastics get far more exposure than those vying for medals on the trampoline. Sprinters garner more attention than hammer throwers. Swimmers will have a lot more eyes on them than even the most consummate water polo athletes.
The most transcendent athletes have managed to become cultural icons, with all the crossover marketability that comes with such status. These ranks are occupied by such names as Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the fastest men on water and land, who rep everything from wristwatches to fast-food restaurants to airlines. Dominant US gymnast Simone Biles has deals with Hershey and Kellogg and recently shook the athletic-wear industry by jumping from Nike to Gap’s Athleta brand.
Gymnasts in particular have made a splash as influencers as their sport gets more attention. Olympic champion Gabby Douglas works with brands like Barbie, Smoothie King and FabFitFun on her social channels. Her teammate Aly Raisman has promoted Silk drinks and AeroGarden plants. McKayla Maroney, another gold medalist (who added to her fame when a reaction shot during competition went viral), also has a sizable following and recently appeared in a Geico commercial.
Then there’s Shawn Johnson East, Liukin’s old teammate in 2008 who got the silver in the all-around competition. She has millions of followers with her husband on Instagram as a parenting influencer and has scored deals with companies such as payment app Venmo, Tula Skincare and Enfamil infant formula.
That team was showered in praise when they got home, but Liukin recalls her life turning upside down, with the structured training she’d been so used to going away. She attended New York University in 2013 and tried to shrink away from that gymnastics identity. She even went by her full name, Anastasia, which she had never used. That didn’t work, though, because when professors called on her, she didn’t realize they were talking to her and wouldn’t answer.
Over time, she settled into her new life and found lots of opportunities. She became an on-air correspondent for both the summer and winter Olympics and appeared on shows like 'Dancing With The Stars' and 'American Ninja Warrior' while building her following and signing brand deals. She also hosts an annual gymnastics competition, the Nastia Liukin Cup.
“I think it’s really important to stay within the industry that you love,” says Liukin. “There are times where athletes turn their backs on their sport. What I have realized was that you have to stay loyal to your world and your fanbase—your first fanbase.”
These days, she shares what’s she’s comfortable with—the highs and lows of her daily life. Her brand partnerships are wide-ranging, as she promotes Volition skincare, Brooklinen sheets, Frame jeans and Harmless Harvest coconut water. She also does in-person events and gymnastics camps.
After these Olympics, she wants to work on her own businesses, such as a dog brand called Harley & Me that’s in development. Yes, it’s named after her pup Harley. And yes, he was featured in her last post before she got on a plane to Tokyo for her gig commentating on NBC’s broadcast.
“Everything has changed,” she says. “It can’t be any more different than what it was in 2008.”