Olympic Gold Medalist Nastia Liukin Defends Olivia Dunne’s Balance of Brand Building and Athletics

The gymnast and social media star is forging a new path forward for college athletes.

Olivia Dunne has represented the U.S. in international gymnastics competitions and has been an All-American at LSU. The junior is also the leading earner among college athletes in name, image and likeness deals, with a seven-figure income thanks largely to her 7.4 million TikTok and 3.8 million Instagram followers. Predictably, she’s faced criticism; one Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach said Dunne represented a “step back” for women in athletics. 

Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic all-around gold medalist, has known Livvy for 10 years.

I can’t imagine being Livvy’s age—20—and going through many of the things I find myself going through in my early 30s. I recently posted a picture on Instagram of myself in a swimsuit. I got a DM afterward that said, “You should be so ashamed of yourself. Are your parents proud of you for raising you to be posting in a swimsuit?”

Gymnastics has always been my biggest passion, and competing on the world’s biggest stage was a goal I had my whole life. In that setting, you’re being praised in your leotard. And then all of a sudden, off the mat and in a swimsuit, you’re being criticized for wearing something that is essentially the same as our uniform. There’s definitely a double standard at play. What men wear as professional athletes on the field or off is never a topic of conversation. Why should it be so for women? Or better yet, why do others feel they have the authority to make comments on our bodies, our clothing, when they would not think to do the same to a man, athlete or not?

View Olivia Dunne’s full 2023 gallery here.

Olivia Dunne was photographed by Ben Watts in Puerto Rico. Swimsuit by Deep Blue Bikini Co.

Olivia Dunne was photographed by Ben Watts in Puerto Rico. Swimsuit by Deep Blue Bikini Co.

I remember being 3 or 4 years old and wanting to wear my leotard to bed. And now I should be ashamed of myself? My parents were proud of me for winning at the Olympics, but according to the internet they shouldn’t be proud of me now? And that’s when I said, This is a problem.

Livvy is being praised on Friday night under the bright lights when she’s on national TV doing wildly difficult skills. Then on Saturday, when she’s being a college student, wearing a swimsuit or “short” shorts, it’s an issue?

Women are always being told to pick a lane. In Livvy’s case, she should “stick to gymnastics.” Who is to say we can’t have multiple interests, multiple passions? I think this is especially true when you’re in college, figuring out who you are, what you want to be, what mark you want to leave on this world. We can be interested in fashion and makeup and beauty and all those things—and we deserve to be able to express that without being attacked for it. It should not discount or discredit our status as a serious businesswoman or an elite athlete.

And yes, a byproduct of Livvy expressing herself is that she’s getting paid, which really seems to bother some people. She’s showing everyone—young girls included—that you don’t have to win the Olympics to forge a path forward. Only a few people are going to win gold and, even then, that doesn’t guarantee a career path.

Livvy is out there putting in the work (and she’s a great gymnast). She’s creating multiple pieces of content a day, engaging with her audience, building trust and cultivating a platform of potential consumers for brands. That is a huge commodity, one she’s developing while essentially holding down another job: being a college athlete, which requires not only skill but also a tremendous time commitment. I graduated from NYU after my competitive career was over. Earlier I had tried juggling training for the Olympics with school, and I lasted half a semester.

View Olivia Dunne’s full 2023 gallery here.

Olivia Dunne was photographed by Ben Watts in Puerto Rico. Swimsuit by RIELLI.

Olivia Dunne was photographed by Ben Watts in Puerto Rico. Swimsuit by RIELLI.

Your sport essentially becomes your job. You don’t get the same opportunities other kids your age get, like internships. On top of that, you want to have a life. Livvy has figured out how to balance four things: being a student, being an athlete, building her business and being 20. She’s creating a sustainable brand for herself, which is vital because in most sports—especially women’s sports—you don’t have that next level of opportunity. There is no professional league. Even if you go to the Olympics, you’re not guaranteed a single dollar. So when an opportunity arises, you take advantage, because you’ve worked your whole life to put yourself in this position.

Livvy has worked as hard as I did, trained the same schedule I did and gone to the same training camps I went to. There’s a key difference, though. I remember standing on the podium with a gold medal around my neck at the Olympics thinking, Now what? I had achieved my biggest dream in my entire life at 18 years old. And I didn’t see a day in my life past that day. I was supposed to be happy and proud—and I was—but I was so afraid because there wasn’t anything after that. It was a huge pivot after that, creating my next path from scratch. Livvy, though, has a foundation in place. She’s writing a playbook that I think a lot of people will be following for years to come.

This article originally published in the 2023 SI Swimsuit Issue. Buy the issue here.

Nastia Liukin