Columbia acrobatics team flips over trip to Belgium

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

April 08, 2001|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

BELGIUM WAS exhausting - a night and a day in airplanes sandwiching three days of world-class competition mostly for neophytes in a sport not widely known in America.

Belgium was an eye-opener - motivation to hit the gym back in Columbia on Tuesday with new stuff to try and new resolve, as well as proving for school administrators that this, indeed, had been a legit absence.

Well, school folks, 18 athletes from a Columbia gym traveled March 28 to Puurs, Belgium, about 45 minutes from Brussels. Ten live in Howard County; most are students. One of the gym's specialties is sports acrobatics, and in Puurs, all 18 competed in an event called the International Acro Cup. While they were not perfecting ways to beat Kent County in the MSPAP, they no doubt learned lifetime lessons.

They were representing Emilia's Acrobatics and Gymnastics Training Center, owned by Danill Kostovetskiy, 53, a former Soviet and Ukraine national gymnast, competitive acrobat and coach who came to the United States 12 years ago. Now an American, he calls Pikesville home with his second wife, son and stepson, all of whom coach at Emilia's, named for his first wife, who died from problems caused by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.

Kostovetskiy's team, which won 28 gold medals, 16 silvers and five team awards in last year's U.S. championships, was in Belgium to learn from competitors in nations where sports acrobatics is more big-time - places such as the host country, Great Britain, Scotland and Poland.

"We learned that we have a lot more work to do, for one thing," said Amy Grear, 18, a Columbian who has been competing as an elite junior athlete only since September - elite being the highest level for her age. "We learned that our dance needed to get better. And when we went out [on the floor to perform], we were, like, a little scared."

For all but four of the Columbians, Puurs was the first international meet in a sport that Russians brought to the United States in the 1970s but that the athletes say Americans still don't get, although moves are common to circuses and cheerleading.

"Some of my classmates think we walk on wires or things like that," said Amy, a Glenelg Country School senior who has been accepted at the University of Maryland. In gymnastics, athletes who compete individually on five apparatuses and in tumbling get scores that are combined for a team result. In acrobatics, athletes work as pairs, trios or, for males, in quartets. With most events set to music and moves within routines linked by dance, competitors climb, bend, twist and balance on one another, bodies freezing at times in positions remarkable for their eye-appeal, leverage, defiance of gravity, flexibility and strength.

As one mother from Potomac at Tuesday's practice put it, "It's sort of like the Cirque de Soleil without the show-business stuff."

Amy's brother, Kevin, 14, a River Hill High freshman, skipped his Tuesday session at Emilia's, because, Mom said, a couple of overdue homework papers took precedence. But, yes, Ms. Buckler and the Principal's Office, Kevin competed in Belgium on Emilia's elite men's-four team that, by finishing sixth in last fall's world championships in Poland, qualified for this year's World Games in Japan.

Kaitlyn Hilton, 13, a seventh-grader at Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City, was another Belgium competitor.

"I'm being more aggressive - that's one thing I learned," said the slip of a young, elite athlete who at a glance didn't square physically with "aggressive."

But there she was, maybe 7 feet high atop two bigger, much older partners, just two of the trio's combined six feet on the floor. Kaitlyn stretched up, turned, bent nearly upside down, balancing on her hands upon a backward-bent teammate just below - until, wobble, the three-high stack unfolded in controlled-disaster mode, Kaitlyn's bare feet whamming into the springy floor.

She grimaced, grabbed the front of her right hip and walked slowly away, staring straight forward.

"Are you OK?" a paternalistic visitor asked as she neared a water fountain for a sip.

"Yeah," she said, pausing. "I can't breathe."

Pain with gain, it would seem. Because less than five minutes later, she and partners Sharish Esh, 32, a marketing business owner, coach and competitor from Odenton, and Courtney Davis, 21, of Bowie were back talking, laughing, trying the same form, the more aggressive Kaitlyn confidently up top again. This time ... hoooold steady ... nice job. A gentle landing and three smiles.

Maybe Belgium had just paid a dividend.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or address e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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