Liukin who? Sports agent strikes gold with U.S. gymnast

BEIJING Thu Aug 21, 2008 3:35am EDT

1 of 2. Gymnastics champion Nastia Liukin of the U.S, poses in front of a Chinese pavilion with her five medals she won in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 20, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Nir Elias

BEIJING (Reuters) - Sports agent Evan Morgenstein cannot stop smiling and no wonder -- he has Olympic gold-medalist U.S. gymnast Nastia Liukin on his client list.

Morgenstein said he stumbled across some gymnastics while flipping channels on the television in 2006. It was not a sport he often watched and he was struck by the beauty and grace of one elfin gymnast, listening intently to find out who she was.

"The beautiful thing of the world we live in today is that I went upstairs to my office, I Googled her name, I found her website, and was like 'Yes', she doesn't have an agent," said Morgenstein who runs sports agency Premier Management Group.

"That is nirvana for a guy like me."

Morgenstein said he emailed Liukin and a week later her father and coach, the 1988 Soviet Olympic gold-medalist Valery Liukin, who had represented Liukin until that time, got back to him and said the time was not right.

Liukin was becoming a big name on the national gymnastics circuit but her international exposure was limited as she was too young to compete at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

But gymnastics was in her blood. Her father, 41, won two gold medals and two silvers at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and her mother is former Soviet rhythmic gymnast Anna Kotchneva. They moved to the United States when their daughter was two years old.

"Every other month for a year I stayed in touch with the family I sent emails and finally a year later he calls and says now is the time to come down," he said.

Morgenstein said Liukin interviewed four sports agencies to find the right fit for his daughter, now 18, who was crowned the top gymnast at Beijing by winning gold in the women's all-round as well as four other medals in other events.

He said he met Liukin, an only child, and her parents for the first time in a Mexican restaurant but the conversation didn't flow. Facing the panel of the tightly-knit family from Moscow he struggled to communicate with them.

"They gave me nothing. It was just such a steely Russian thing, they were so eating my brain, and I walked away saying I blew it," said Morgenstein who also represents American swimmers Dara Torres, Amanda Beard, and Mark Spitz.

"But (after) three times going down there, I got a call saying: "Nastia wants to work with you". It was to this date one of the singularly greatest moments because of how much I wanted to work with her because I felt like this was going to be the future."

After Liukin's Olympic wins, Morgenstein was quick to make sure his client capitalized on her success, heading on Thursday to the United States for a round of TV and media interviews before joining The 2008 Tour of Gymnastics Superstars that stops at 38 U.S. cities.

How much was such a client worth to Morgenstein? He said he could not put a value on Liukin but her successes to date would ensure she could build a brand to fund the rest of her life.

(Editing by Keith Weir)