Man builds dream to daring heights

Ex-Russian acrobat trains U.S. students in sport he loves

November 29, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The converted warehouse in Columbia jumps with activity. Girls bounce on trampolines, and toddlers dangle from uneven bars. At one end of the gigantic room, a woman turns back flips. And in another area, four men form a human column that nearly touches the ceiling.

Daniil Kostovetskiy stands like a ringmaster amid the bustle.

The eyes of the former Soviet acrobat dart from one athlete to another.

He shouts praises to the woman tumbling in the back corner and in the next second coaches the boy balancing on top of the human column to straighten his leg.

Before the boy has moved, Kostovetskiy is looking at a girl nearby practicing handstands. "Good job," he tells her.

"I love it when I see them improve and I see the kids change," said Kostovetskiy.

Kostovetskiy has had to change in the 35 years that have passed since he started coaching acrobatics in his native city of Kiev. As the coach of the Ukrainian and Soviet teams in the 1970s and 1980s, he worked in a country that had developed sports acrobatics and exhibited it on national holidays.

Today, the 51-year-old Pikesville resident is trying to bring attention to a sport almost unknown in the United States, training athletes for world championships, while paying the bills with birthday parties and cheerleading clinics.

Since coming to the United States 10 years ago, Kostovetskiy has learned not only English, but a new style of coaching to accommodate a culture where parents are as concerned about their children's happiness as their sports achievements.

He yells less than he did when he coached students in the Soviet Union, but he is no less adamant that his athletes strive for excellence. At a national competition in Phoenix in August, his insistence was rewarded with 59 medals -- more than any of the other 32 teams competing.

"Yelling doesn't help with the skills," he said. "You need explanation."

In the United States, he has had to start by explaining the sport of acrobatics, which dates to the time of the ancient Greeks and was popularized by circus performers in Asia and Europe.

Although similar to gymnastics, acrobatics consists of team events in which athletes are judged on balance and tempo.

The Soviets established competitive sports acrobatics this century, focusing on events that included tumbling and choreographed lifting routines with two, three and four athletes.

Soviet immigrants brought sports acrobatics to the United States in the 1970s, and today 47 clubs and nearly 800 acrobats are registered in the country, according to U.S. Sports Acrobatics. In the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, acrobatics was an exhibition sport, and enthusiasts hope it will become a regular Olympic event.

Like many acrobats, Kostovetskiy's career started in gymnastics. When he was age 7, he began taking gymnastics classes at a gym near his home in Kiev. Although his parents weren't athletes, they were happy that their active son had found something to amuse him.

Soon after he began gymnastics, his coaches decided his small size and energy would be better suited to acrobatics.

When Kostovetskiy was a boy, eight schools taught acrobatics in Kiev alone, and 58 in Ukraine. He trained at Olympic Acrobatic School No. 4 before and after school. He made the Ukrainian and then the Soviet national acrobatics team, where he excelled at tumbling and men's group events. At age 16, he started coaching younger children, but continued in competition until after he graduated from college.

"I loved it," he said. "There was lots of movement and energy."

Anti-Semitism hurt him

While he held a prestigious position in the country's sports program, enjoying free food, uniforms and housing and the chance to compete in a popular sport, he chafed under Soviet anti-Semitism. Although a member of the national team, he was unable to travel to European competitions because he is Jewish. His daughter was denied admission to college.

In 1987, his wife, Emilia, died of what Kostovetskiy believes was an illness related to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. Two years later, he was granted permission to leave the country with his 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, joining family members in Baltimore.

Although Kostovetskiy knew almost no English, he was luckier than many immigrants, finding work in his field soon after he arrived. He took a job at Kelli Hill gym in Wheaton, where Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes was training. He stayed there until three years ago when he started his club, Emilia's Acrobatics & Gymnastics Training Center, named for his late wife and his new wife.

The flags of different nations hang from the ceiling in the gym at Emilia's. Children as young as 18 months toddle on the mats, throwing bean bags to increase their strength and coordination. The gym is outfitted with trampolines, bars and beams. Cheerleaders train at the facility, and on Sundays children have birthday parties there.

`It's fun and it's hard'

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