Authors: Tamara Vardomskaya
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18.1 The characteristic of Balance Exercises is that the partners remain in contact at all times during the performance of pair/group elements.
We are one, and we are not one.
The music crescendos as we lower into a half-needle stance, on two hands and one foot. The base's right leg is extended in a vertical split, and the top mounts it, gripping the perspiration-slick pointed foot with chalked-up hands, and casting up into a handstand.
For three seconds we are a single still line, foot to leg to toe to hands to arms to body to legs. Then the base's body straightens, rising slowly to a full needle, vertical split against the base's back. The top curves into a Mexican handstand, bending almost double, backs of knees over head. Carefully, carefully maintaining balance, our bodies staying still around that crucial single centre point.
By the edge of the sprung floor, Coach Salter waits, as taut as us even though he stands on two feet with arms crossed, for his most special pair to finish the first routine of qualifying for the Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships women's pair final.
Our tendons shudder, but we remain still for the required three seconds, until the top bends her legs and stands both feet on the base's one foot, in a ring. Then rises up out of it, balancing on two feet on top of one foot. Just standing, as if on the floor; it seems the simplest, but a foot stand is the hardest move in Balance routines, much harder than handstands. An additional five points for difficulty, because no one else does it, not even at the World Championships, not for the three seconds.
The top dismounts in a somersault. Double front salto, instead of back. Incredibly hard for almost everyone, as one cannot see where one's feet will land. But we are not one.
The music ends as we both raise our arms to salute the judges. As usual, the women's pairs alternate with another competition, the mixed pairs, and we let our countrymen Chris and Eva step on the floor as we wait on the couches in the kiss-and-cry.
The scores come up, setting us at runaway first in the women's pair qualification standings after the Balance routine, even before Chris and Eva have finished performing. We do the obligatory hug for the TV cameras, and sit back and watch Chris and Eva's routine on closed-circuit, Eva finishing with a one-armed handstand on Chris's uplifted hand, his eyes up and meeting hers. Their routine is world-class, but dares try no footstands, and no front saltos.
They are two separate people. No one may know that we are not.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The world knew us, in the convention of listing the top first, as Kim Tang and Alana Watson. We remember ourself as Jennifer Smith. I was Jennifer, who started out in artistic gymnastics but switched to acrobatics after my growth spurt meant I wasn't as good a senior as I was a junior. I knew my bars and beam would never get me to senior elite level, not with memories of a terrifying crash off beam at an invitational meet. Balancing on your partner's one extended foot in half-needle is easier than balancing on five meters of solid beam. Humans cooperate, and yield in the fall; a beam is hard, and unforgiving.
Then at the age of twenty-one, Jennifer Smith was heading to the airportâto vacation, even, not to a meetâand that was the last we remember as I.
The next we know, we wake up in our apartment, and know we have intensive practice this morning and we know how to get to Coach Salter's gym, and little else.
Who was Kim Tang? Who was Alana Watson? We know our official birthdays on our FIG registrations: Kim a month older than Jennifer, Alana three weeks younger. We know our bodies can stretch to splits and needles and fold nearly in half in Mexican handstands and rings. But we know nothing of who these bodies loved and were loved by, what visions had delighted them, whether the top'sâKim'sâbackground was Chinese or Vietnamese or Korean, even what caused the little white scar on the side of the base'sâAlana'sâwrist.
Common-named pair, switching gyms and skyrocketing to the top ranks. Not telling anyone what advantage we have. The extra difficulty points of our blind front salto are undeserved, since the base can see where the top's feet are going. We know where both our body centres are; we can feel it. We think of our two spines as others think of their two legs. Synchronizing is as easy as moving two arms at the same time. Cooperating is as easy as being one with ourself.
If Coach Salter knew, beyond calling us âKimalana,' he wasn't telling, or telling who did this to us. Who had the gall to copy a mind, twice, or what happened to Jennifer Smith.
But do we have time to ask questions, with exhausting training sessions for hours every day, with assistant coaching the rest of the time to afford rent beyond meagre athletic stipends, with the potential to be the very best in the world hanging in the balance? Just wait to win the World title. Then ask.
Our Balance routine was to the Adagio in G minor, the piece that Remo Giazotto passed off as Albinoni's from three hundred years before, but had written himself.
We too were famous and beautiful and appreciated for pretending to be something other than what we were.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
In a blessedly empty section of the dressing room, we lie spooned, soaking in the delicious ache of bodies at last allowed slack against the yoga mats. Long solid-muscled base, flaxen-haired Nordic Valkyrie. Small slender top just tall enough to reach above the hollow of the base's throat as per regulations, with barely any breasts or curves to speak of; you have to look for the muscle, but it's there; raven glossy hair in a bun, deep-set narrow eyes in heart-shaped face, epicanthic folds and uncreased eyelids.
We roll the top over and look at ourself, not self-conscious about nudity at all, blue eyes against dark-brown, searching for what should look right, for when we were I.
When we were IÂ â¦ I did not have very much of a visual memory at all. We do not remember my hair colour, my eyes, what I looked like; we are now lost in bodies that were not mine.
We caress ourself, base's long-fingered hands against our top's flat breast, top sliding a hand between the base's powerful thighs.
It is indistinguishable from masturbation.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
We did search for Jennifer Smithâmeâon the Internet, many times. It is an extremely common name, but we did find my high school; my early gymnastics record from long-archived meets confirming that yes, I remembered rightly about a string of sixteenth places on floor and twenty-ninth places on beam; my acro meets record and a steady climb up, first as a top, then as a base, with even a commentator saying I had Worlds potential in a few years, with my levels of difficulty, given a good choreographer. Not high enough, though, to be televised, for us to find any video record of what I had looked like.
And then nothing. The Internet forgot about me, its last record being when I was seventeen, now online-schooled as an elite athlete. The Internet forgets about many people.
And there were too many Kim Tangs and Alana Watsons to look for, to guess where among them were our families and those who loved us. And perhaps missed us. We were adults; sometimes, adults do set out alone from shattered homes, and rebuild their souls in an elite sports career.
Until they find themselves at the World Championships, and runaway favourites to win it. And secretly cheating.
23.2 The characteristic of dynamic elements is that flight is involved and contact between the partners is brief and assists or interrupts flight.
Lunch lines at the official cafeterias of the World Championships venue: no taste to brag about, but nutritious meals full of protein and carbohydrates for the bodies of the best athletes on the planet. Acrobats in competition form cannot afford to be gourmetsâeven an extra kilogram or two, and the balance point will shift, and the carefully synchronized tumbling will fall out of sync in muscle memory.
Chris of the mixed pair stands in line for the chicken just ahead of our top. Eva of the mixed pair is with the base halfway across the cafeteria getting salads.
We say hello to Chris and Eva, separately, but our greetings echoing each other. We exchange a few pleasantries about the food, and our routines, and getting ready for dynamic and combined qualifications this afternoon and the final tomorrow.
By the salads, Eva confesses to the base, “Chris and I are hoping for a top five finish. But you twoâoh my god. I have no idea how you even
that footstand, how you even learned.”
The base says, modest as is conventional, “It's in the Code;
must have done it before.”
“But no one does it except you.”
“Thanks. It took six months before Salter got us to it.”
By the chicken, Chris says. “Kim? Umâ¦” His face matches the red of his curls, in intensity at least if not shade. “I was wondering ifÂ â¦ you'd like to have coffee with me, um, sometime? If you and Alana are not, are you, umâ¦?”
Like a badly landed dismount, he bounces to a stuttering stop. “Um, that didn't really come out the way I intended.”
Only then do we realize that although the entire global acro gossip network (elite acrobatics is a small, small world) knows us as roommates, there must be heated debates as to whether we are lesbians as well.
We want to laugh; it's so much more complicated than that! “We are not lesbian lovers, if that is what you're asking,” comes out smooth and even as skidding on polished, unforeseen ice.
He turns possibly redder than his hair now. “SoÂ â¦ Kim, will you have coffee with me?” he says in a machine-gun rattle. “If Alana doesn't actually mindâ¦”
We can't keep in our laughter now. We turn to what's likely a triviality, to hide it. “Wouldn't Eva object?” Then we realize that we were committing the exact same age-old error he had been: assuming that athletic partners must be romantic ones as well.
Some are; like figure skaters, most of the ones who had started training together as children aren't. “Why would she care?” is the response, as we expected. “She's dating one of the girls in the women's group.”
“Sure, then,” the top says. “WeâI will. After quals? Due to that security thing, it seems all we have is the coffee shop in the food court, but we can do it there.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
We dance through our qualifications dynamic routine, the top leaping onto the base's shoulders and twisting and somersaulting off, then the two of us tumbling along the diagonal and flying up, spinning in complete synchronization.
We think of Chris. Both of us. Of the way he smiles. Of his chest muscles under his leotard. Of how damn long it has been since weâIâJennifer had last gotten laid.
his tongue in our mouth
his hands on our breastsâ
double pike somersaultâ
his thighs on our hipsâmine, mine, not our, he wants the top, not the base, he wants Kim, not Alana, he didn't
for a threesâ
We land wrong. The base collapses, the top rolls, sprawling, a broken puppet. A hundred times we've hit that routine, in practice and in competition, and had never had so much as a form break, much less fallen.