Three Howard girls are U.S. champions.

At the top in acrobatics

Howard At Play

Recreation and local sports in Howard County

August 17, 2005|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

In their sport, acrobatics, they're the nation's best girls of high school age or younger who compete as a trio. Period.

Ellicott City's Becky Herzfeld and Ekaterina Randazzo and Columbia's Roksana Slavinsky earned that designation as a team last month in Louisville, Ky., at USA Gymnastics' 2005 Acrobatics National Championships.

Their specialty is what some call sports acrobatics, sports acro, or just acrobatics.

They train in a tucked-away gym in Columbia's Guilford Industrial Center that has just the faintest of signage but has a habit of sending young athletes around the nation and to Europe to compete - and coming home with medals. Emilia's Acrobatics and Gymnastics Training Center is the business of Ukraine native Daniil Kostovetskiy, a one-time acrobatics competitor and then coach in the Soviet Union.

"I've been coaching - just coaching - for 41 years," he says while an array of young athletes work on tumbling moves, lifts, feats of balancing oneself on a single hand. "I started competing when I was 7."

What you see as he leads his Junior Olympians through a workout is not the familiar gymnastics of uneven bars, balance beam, etc., although comparable strength, athleticism, determination and courage are required, and most acrobatics athletes began in that better-known but younger discipline.

In acrobatics, competition is organized to include pairs, trios and quartets. While individual skill is a requisite, scoring is done for each squad and how its members work together.

You'd recognize some of the skills and moves the three Howard County girls have mastered if you've watched college (and these days, some high school) cheer squads build human pyramids, and hoist and throw girls high into the air. But there's lots more to what the girls do competitively than entertain football and basketball fans.

Amazing moves

Just watch any of them stretch or precisely place hands and feet and legs in seemingly endless combinations to support the trio's youngest and smallest member.

Watch Katja (as everybody calls Ekaterina) work out in solitude, balancing herself on a short pole with just one hand, and then turning her body, all without touching the ground. Amazing.

Intensely focused at one end of a communal training mat, she completes several variations, oblivious to other young athletes watching her, before joining her partners.

Becky, 16, a Howard High student; Katja, 12, who attends Bonnie Branch Middle School; and Roksana, soon to be 17 and a senior at Hammond High, compete at the highest skill level for their age group. Teamed by Kostovetskiy two years ago, they beat two trios from California last month and gained membership on the United States' first Junior Olympic national team in acrobatics.

The honor earns them added training at the national level, more chances to travel for competition, and instant credibility anywhere they compete.

And now, they're pointing for an international meet in November being conducted this year in Washington.

`So close'

Kostovetskiy - bare-foot, exacting, keen-eyed but seemingly always smiling and positive as his young charges work - is clearly excited about the trio's potential.

He praises each member to a visitor, then says: "You watch Katja. She's so close to a triple somersault, and I'm sure she's going to get it - just more work - and she'll be the first one ever in this country. I know she can do it."

Minutes later, Katja - she's the tiny, fearless "flier" or "top" of the trio, the member people who don't know acrobatics can't help but focus on - completes an eye-blink quick triple. Understand, that's three somersaults after having been launched about 10 feet high while standing on her partners' interlocked hands and wrists.

Kostovetskiy eases Katja down with ropes linked through a pulley to a safety harness around her waist, but unlike in a couple of previous tries that required harder tugs on the ropes, his touch is ever-so-slight, and her landing is precise, balanced.

"She's so close," the coach says again.

Katja, who about 10 minutes earlier landed unevenly during a different combination, dinging one side of her face against her partners' arms, breaks into a huge grin.

Becky and Roksana do, too. Both older girls appreciate the degree of difficulty. They've been fliers, too. Roksana was at the top for a different Emilia's trio that took three medals during the 2002 national championships in New Orleans.

But older and taller now - "I got a little big to be on top," says Roksana - they're now developing different skills while serving as this trio's all-important base.

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