"I have never heard of that before," Liu, 16, tells TODAY Parents after learning she's being compared to the greatest gymnast of all time. "That's the first time. That's like a really big honor because I love Simone Biles a lot!"
Adam Rippon, 2018 Olympic figure skating medalist, made the comparison between Biles and Liu, and it's easy to see why. Liu started skating at age 5, and at 13 became the youngest woman to win a U.S. Championship title. She'd go on to win the championship the following year, too, becoming the youngest skater to win back-to-back U.S. titles.
In addition, she became the first U.S. woman to land three triple axels in a single competition, the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple lutz in a competition, and the first woman in the world to land a quad and triple axel in the same program at a competition.
Liu is well aware of the pressure put on athletes as she heads into the games, let alone the additional pressure of being compared to an athlete like Biles — who had to withdraw from the Olympic team competition last summer in order to protect her mental health. Liu said she pays attention to her mental health.
“I have a mental coach, and I have a therapist as well. So we just talk about the stuff I’m going through and how I can get better,” she explains. “I think it’s really important to have somebody that you can rely on to talk about stuff. It’s honestly really helpful and mental health is really important, especially for athletes, because we undergo a lot of pressure — and a lot of other people have such big expectations for us — and that sometimes wears at us, I guess. So it’s really important to have somebody to talk to.”
And while a 16-year-old medaling at the Olympics — if it’s gold, it will make the first time a U.S. woman has won gold in figure skating since 2002 — would certainly inspire young figure skaters around the world, Liu isn’t focused on what young people may learn from her. Instead, she’s simply focused on having fun.
“I’ve been focusing more on myself rather than living up to other people’s expectations,” she explains. “And whatever I do, hopefully it inspires some people. If it doesn’t, that’s also fine, but if it does, that’s really cool.”
Liu is no stranger to setbacks, either. After winning back-to-back championships, she placed fourth in the 2021 Championships after dealing with injuries, a growth spurt and a coaching change. This year, Liu had to withdraw from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships after testing positive for COVID-19.
Liu says she's feeling much better now, having recovered from her COVID diagnosis, and says she simply picked up where she left off.
"Yeah, honestly, I didn't really feel any different," she says. "So training went normal and smoothly."
Currently, millions are under lockdown in Beijing, as the country faces multiple variants of the virus and a rise in confirmed cases. On Wednesday, NBC Sports announced that it would not be sending any commentators to the Winter Games, siting COVID concerns.
Athletes will be under strict COVID-19 safety protocols in order to compete, too — they all must be fully vaccinated or spend 21 days in quarantine, undergo daily COVID-19 testing, mask mandates, and are to stay in their "bubbles" for the entirety of their stay.
But while the Winter Games will certainly look different than those of years past, that isn't damping Liu's spirits.
"I haven't ever been to an Olympics before. I don't know what it's gonna be like. So even though things are probably going to be different this time, I won't have, like, a big expectation," she says. "So luckily, I will not feel disappointed at all. No matter what happens. And my friends are always there supporting me. We're always on FaceTime."
For Liu, fun at the Olympics will include listening to her go-to artists these days (ITZY and Doja Cat), meeting new athletes and making new friends. She says a few Team USA Olympians are bringing board and card games to pass the time while they're in their respective bubble, so she's ready to "compete" off the ice, too.
She's also excited to return to China. Her father, Junguo (Arthur) Liu, was forced to flee his country after participating in pro-democracy demonstrations in his 20s. After learning he was one of the government's "most-wanted students," friends helped to smuggle him by boat out of the country. At the age of 25, he eventually found his way to Oakland, California.
In 2017, Liu visited her father's family in China. Her father is her only biological parent — Liu, along with her four siblings, were all conceived via anonymous egg donors and surrogates.
"Obviously we still love the country of China, even after my dad left because of the government. This is still his homeland, and he's very happy that I get to go to China again," she says. "Just going back to China will make me feel good."
Liu and her father are very close, and she has made it a habit, of sorts, of gifting her father with the medals she wins.
"The medal isn't really the important thing to me," she explains. "It's normally about the journey and all the experiences and the things I've learned. The materialistic things, like the medal, aren't important to me. But it's important for me when I give it to my dad because it has meaning."
When asked if she'll gift her father a medal if she wins a bronze, silver, or gold at the Olympics, she laughs, then says:
"If I did ever medal, I'd probably give it to him."