When gymnast Liliyah Podkopayeva came to America more than two decades ago, she was just a teenager and the United States seemed “far, far, far, far away” from her home country, Ukraine. “The United States,” she said, “was like a different planet.”

Here, everyone spoke English, a language Podkopayeva didn’t then understand. Everyone needed a car to get around. They had new computers. All sorts of things just seemed strange.

Liliyah Podkopayeva, an Olympic gold medalist and gymnastics coach at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. (Special)

Plus, she was a gifted young athlete at the top of international competition. She had taken top honors in the all-around competition at the 1995 World Championships. Then, in 1996, she represented Ukraine in the Atlanta Olympics and claimed the all-around gold medal, a second gold medal for floor exercises and a silver medal on balance beam.

She was in the spotlight. In 1997, she said, she was named “Person of the Year” in Ukraine. That same year, she joined a bus tour of the U.S. with other Olympic athletes, including members of the celebrated U.S. team. The “Tour of Champions” did something like 70 shows, Podkopayeva remembers, and performed in front of thousands of people at a time. “You kind of felt like a pop star,” she said.

Still, she felt like visitor in the U.S. “When you travel for competition you don’t see anything, you don’t see the culture,” she said. “It was hard because I didn’t speak English at all, but it was great. … It was a lot for a girl who was 18.”

Besides, Ukraine was her home. Even after she moved on from gymnastic competitions, she was a celebrity there. She competed twice in the Ukrainian version of “Dancing with the Stars” and won that competition in 2007.

Now, at 40 and a mother of two, she feels more comfortable in the U.S. than she did when she was younger. “Now it’s my home,” she said.
She’s still moving around and spending time in gyms. Since the late 1990s, she’s continued shuttling from the U.S. to Ukraine for work, she said.

“Gymnasts have gypsy blood,” she said. “We couldn’t stay home.”

A little more than a year ago, she and her family settled in Atlanta. She recently started working as a coach for young gymnasts at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, which is located in Dunwoody. She’s among about 15 coaches at the MJCCA’s gymnastics center, where she primarily works with the older and more experienced girls, center director Stacey Harris said.

“I’m thrilled [she’s here],” Harris said. “She’s a delightful person. Her presence in the gym is just amazing. Here knowledge of gymnastics and how to coach it is world class. And it’s just fun.”

Podkopayeva says she likes living in Atlanta. It reminds her more of her Ukrainian home than her previous residence in Florida. She likes the hills. And the seasons. It seems like a good place to raise kids. “It reminds me a little bit of Kiev,” she said.

She feels other ties to Atlanta, too. There are memories of her gold medal performances in the Atlanta Olympics, of course. And she credits a doctor at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta with saving her daughter’s life when the child needed surgery related to blood vessels in her brain. Podkopayeva calls the doctor her own Olympic champion.

“I consider myself a Ukrainian, but I really appreciate everything I got here in the U.S. When I was here [before], I was like 20 years old. When you’re in gymnastics, you know nothing but gymnastics. You practice seven, eight hours a day. You get used to it.”

And even though she stopped competing, she couldn’t just walk away from gymnastics. Twenty years on, she can’t imagine herself as a pensioner, someone who doesn’t keep working and keep active.

“I don’t like it when my cellphone doesn’t ring,” she said.

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.