After Sharing the Nastia Liukin Cup Title, Nikki Smith Commits to Michigan State’s Success

Feb. 25, 2022. The atmosphere is dense with nerves, energy and pink inside the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas. Thirty-nine level 10 athletes are getting ready to compete at the Nastia Liukin Cup. Among them, a five-star recruit from Euro Stars Gymnastics in Michigan visualizes perfect versions of her routines in her head and reminds herself that she has nothing to worry about—she has been here before, and she’s never been better. She’s ready to win.

Nikki Smith enters the arena for her third-consecutive Nastia Liukin Cup. She’s having mixed feelings. On one hand, she’s feeling the pressure of knowing that this is her last chance to win, as she’s leaving for Michigan State to start her college career in the fall. On the other, she’s aware that her gymnastics has improved steadily since her first time at the Cup in 2020. She was 10th in that appearance and fifth last year. Can she improve by over five positions and bring home the trophy? She thinks she can.

“Leading up to the actual competition I was telling myself I could do it,” Smith said. “I’ve improved each year, and I just had to trust my training and believe I was capable. It certainly was my goal to win, but with all the talented gymnasts, it was still an uncertainty, especially since anything can happen until the end.” 

Where did she find her self-confidence? “I just kept visualizing me winning,” she explained.

Smith started off the competition on vault, where she landed a beautiful Yurchenko 1.5. She then moved to bars, where she delivered a solid performance, which included a stuck double layout dismount. Of the four events, bars was the one Smith was most proud of. “I have improved significantly on bars,” she explained. “I had some form issues in my first Nastia appearance, but I felt my bar routine and form [were] great this year.”

After a stunning beam routine, Smith moved to floor as one of the favorites to clinch the title. Although she didn’t know the score she needed to win, she knew she needed a great performance. She was ready to deliver. “Floor is my favorite event, so I was focused on visualizing a flawless routine, which could be a little tricky on podium,” she said. “I knew I had to have a very good routine to finish in the top five.”

Smith delivered a fantastic set, which she opened with a sky-high full-twisting double back. She was all smiles as she left the podium. Then she had to sit and wait. It was an anxious time, as she watched the rest of her competitors complete their routines. The final gymnast on floor was Jamison Sears, another 5-star recruit in the class of 2023. She performed a stunning routine, outscoring Smith on floor by half a tenth and… It was a tie.

What followed was confusion, which only Smith can help to clarify. USA Gymnastics proclaimed Sears the sole winner on the account that its rules don’t include ties, although the 2014 trophy was also shared at both the senior and junior levels. Nastia Liukin, however, who was herself deprived of an Olympic gold medal on bars because of a tie in 2008, refused to accept the verdict and declared Sears and Smith co-winners. In the end, although score sheets continued to list Sears as the top-finisher, the two gymnasts were allowed to lift the trophy together, and they accepted the tie graciously. “I think it will be a new rule at the Nastia Cup going forward not to break first-place ties,” Smith joked.

As she reflects on the result now, Smith admits that at the time she was a bit disappointed with the tie because her perfectionist side took it as a sign that she should have performed even better. “While it certainly was my goal to win, I was also cheering and hoping for the other gymnasts to do well. In gymnastics you want the win to be because of your own personal greatness and not because of someone else’s failure,” she said. “So when we tied, I was a little disappointed because I should have been a quarter-tenth better on something.”

At the same time, she was happy to share the title with Sears. “We rotated together at the meet [and] we had a nice camaraderie,” Smith said. “I was happy for Jamison and proud to share first place with her.”

Additionally, Smith’s had a stellar year so far, which included a perfect 10.0 on vault and a Michigan state all-around title—and she has an even brighter future ahead. The next stop will be the level 10 national championships in Mesa, Arizona, in mid-May, where Smith has clear goals for herself and her Region 5 teammates. “[I want to] have fun at nationals with gymnasts whom I have known for years in Region 5,” she said. “I hope to contribute to our age group and Region 5 winning; [and] I also hope to have a personal national championship.”

Nationals will be Smith’s final meet as a level 10, after which she will prepare to leave for East Lansing, Michigan, to start her college career as a Spartan. Smith was attracted to MSU by the strength of its academics and the potential of its gymnastics program, but in the end, it was her family bond that contributed the most to her decision. MSU “is very close to home, and I come from a very close family,” she explained. Plus, her sister Nyah is a junior on the team. “She talked very highly of the coaches, team and school,” Smith said. “She was probably their best recruiting weapon!”

In her subsequent visits to Michigan State, moreover, Smith was impressed with the coaches’ commitment to the program, and she felt immediately at home with her future teammates. Among them was former five-star recruit Skyla Schulte, who just completed her first season as a Spartan. She and Smith have known each other for years, have developed a deep friendship and are aware that they are going to be a dynamic duo in East Lansing. “[I] love Skyla—we were in Region 5 together,” Smith said. “Over the past year, I have hung out with her and the team, and I think we have built a great bond already. I think each of the gymnasts will come with their best game, and I hope we can push each other to another great and better season.”

When she committed in ninth grade, Smith could sense the potential of the MSU program and believes that this year’s ninth-place finish is the first step toward even greater achievements. “I somehow knew [MSU] had the makings for greatness,” Smith recalled of the moment she committed. “I think they were starting to have a stand-out year in 2020 but then COVID hit. Then they came back this past season with a team determined and dedicated to making the program a national contender. I think with my group coming in the fall, I hope we can contribute to that continued success and help the team reach nationals and win.”

As Smith prepares for the next chapter of her life, she will hold dear the three principles that she believes lead to success in gymnastics and beyond: “Train hard, listen to your coaches and never give up.” Plus, she will continue to have dreams that will defy anyone else’s expectations. “Sometimes others may not believe or see your vision,” she said. “But if you see it for yourself and believe it, then you can achieve it.”

Will her vision lead Michigan State all the way to a national title? Only time will tell.

READ THIS NEXT: Alabama Commit Jamison Sears Wins 2022 Nastia Liukin Cup

Article by Talitha Ilacqua

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