One man or one woman combats the odds to climb the Olympic summit—isn't it such a lovely old tale? It's a lie, of course. It takes a village to raise a gold medalist.
Widen the frame of the camera focused on our lonely Olympian, and you'll see the others at the base of the mountain: the devoted spouse, the sacrificing parent, the never-say-die coach. Behind them, there's often the community that steps forward to offer a sponsorship or a convenient job, and usually a whole nation providing funds, training camps, equipment, scientists and psychologists. Thanks to them, our hero's allowed to indulge in the phenomenal selfishness and single-mindedness necessary to become the best in the world and make us all feel wonderful. It's a good deal all around.
Imagine an Olympian giving most of that up. Imagine him ending up in a place far from his home and support system, a place he'd never been in his life, and depending completely on one person, his spouse . . . who ends up deciding to do the exact same selfish, single-minded thing. What do you get when two people who sleep in the same bed try to become the best in the world in the very same event, in the very same Olympics?
A love story.
September 3, 2000
Let's start where they started. Let's begin the most harrowing quest of the Sydney Games back in 1992, with a strikingly tall, blond, handsome, wide-shouldered teenage boy who's staring at a strikingly tall, blonde, beautiful, willowy teenage girl as she flies down the straightaway during a 4x400-meter relay at a junior international track meet in Bressanone, Italy. "She is nice looking, yes?" asks his coach, Alex Parnov.
"Oh, yes," says Viktor Chistiakov.
"Go meet her. You should try to make something with her."
The boy's a taker, so why shouldn't he take her, too? He has the looks, size, intelligence, talent and blood for any task. He's the son of a man who ran the 110-meter hurdles in two Olympics and was coach of the Soviet track and field team in another, and of a woman who earned Olympic bronze in the 400 meters. When Viktor wants a girl at the sports school he attends in Moscow, he climbs up knotted bedsheets and takes one. If a cleaning man tries to tidy up the track while he's training, he threatens to go to the director and take away the worker's job. He's the life of every party, a boy who radiates the appetite and arrogance his coach cultivates: Don't bend. Take what you want. It's yours. No matter what height they set the pole vault bar at in junior meets, it seems the 17-year-old takes that, too.
There's never been anyone in the pole vault quite like him. He towers over his foes at 6'7 1/2", packed with muscles from Parnov's strict regime, yet he hasn't lost the gift of his parents' blazing speed. He steams down the runway like a locomotive and springs skyward into a vault that, because of his size, seems to unfold in slow motion. Twice he'll come less than a half inch from the world junior record of 19 feet. Russia has "the next Sergei Bubka," as Parnov calls him, all lined up to replace the current one, who happens to be the best pole vaulter who ever lived.
As soon as the girl crosses the finish line, as she pants, bent in half with fatigue, the boy approaches her. "How do you feel?" he asks. Tatiana Grigorieva barely looks up, barely mutters a reply.
Since his teammate is pursuing her roommate, he showers and goes with him to the girls' room and finds Tatiana in bed, suffering from a kidney infection. Well, then, she's a captive audience, so he proceeds to tell his life story.
To find out what she thinks of it, he has to wait a whole month until he sees her again, at a track meet in Pisa. But when he walks toward her, she turns away. Wait a minute. The boy can have any girl he wants. This cannot be.
Tatiana doesn't know what she does to him. She's 17, has never had a boyfriend, doesn't yet understand her power. A half year has passed since she snubbed him. She has just traveled from her home in St. Petersburg to a training camp in Moscow, picked up the phone and heard a male voice say, "Hello. This is Chistiakov."
It's another power move, opening with his famous family name. "Chistiakov?" she says. "Who is Chistiakov?"
Her reply is a fishhook sunk in the roof of Viktor's mouth, a terrific pain and pull all at once. Is she the only person in Russian athletics who doesn't know of the boy's Olympian father or mother, of the renown of the boy himself or of his sister Nadezda, once the fourth-best junior 100-meter hurdler in the world? Tatiana waits as he swallows air. "This is Viktor," he tries again. "You . . . you remember Viktor?"
Oh, Viktor. That tall, talkative boy who assumed a little too much. "I know you," she concedes.
For two hours they walk in a nearby park, teeth chattering from a cold so stunning that it almost mutes even Viktor. She's different from any girl he has ever known. A solitary sort, a girl who has suffered in sanatoriums from searing fevers whose cause doctors couldn't diagnose and who has turned to track in hopes of strengthening her body and immune system. She doesn't trust easily. She measures. She recoils when girls gossip or flirt, seethes when they back down in school from boys who snatch food from them at lunch. She fights the boys. She comes home from school, walks her dog, takes a bus across town to train, returns home in darkness and studies. She has the silky skin, the facial bones, the intelligence and emotional distance of a Russian princess. Something about her untouchability compels the boy to lean toward her and . . . .
She leans away. This cannot be.
It's a long way and a lot of money for a teenage boy: a nine-hour train ride from Moscow and a hotel room in St. Petersburg. But Tatiana is only the second thing in Viktor's life that he has wanted desperately and cannot have, and he'll reach for her with the same fervor as he did the first—the father who died in a car crash when he was seven.
His mother had collapsed at the news of her husband's death and told her children, "I can't help you now. You'll have to find your own way." Six years later, at age 13, the tall, bony boy did. Parnov, a young Russian pole vaulting coach who had married Viktor's sister, Nadezda, got permission from Viktor's mother for her son to move in with him, attend a Moscow sports school and one day, perhaps, do what Parnov had never been able to do during his vaulting days: dethrone Bubka.
Parnov is the classic Russian coach. That means he's god. He makes most of the boy's decisions, at home and on the track, goes out of his way to help him, becomes like a father. It sure seems to be working. Viktor will dominate the junior circuit right up to the 1994 Junior World Championships and win that as well.
Still, an emptiness gnaws at him. He keeps returning to his father's grave to ask for advice. He keeps chasing his father in the dream that returns to him over and over, the one in which he walks down a street, passes a man and then realizes a half block later, That was my dad! He turns and races back to find him . . . and wakes up just before he does, heart thumping wildly, every time.
Now he's ringing at Tatiana's front door, smiling and handing her a dozen blood-red roses. She can't deny it: There's something touching in the way this large, arrogant boy turns so sensitive and solicitous when he's around her. She kisses him that night. There's Viktor at the door a few weekends later, just off another nine-hour train ride, extending a one-pound bar of chocolate. Another weekend, another one-pound bar, and another and another. Then there's Viktor at the door with a TV set.
She melts, becomes touchable, becomes his. It's three years later, and they've just begun living together in a tiny Moscow apartment. She seems different from her forceful mother. She doesn't contest his will, doesn't question where they'll go, what they'll eat or drink. In their land, once a woman lets a man into her heart, she's the leaf and he the wind, or at least she finds a way to make him feel so. But, funny, the wind's suddenly 8,500 miles away.
She packed up her life in St. Petersburg and moved in with Viktor, only to find out a month later that his coach has accepted a job at the South Australia Institute of Sports in Adelaide, for god's sake. So there's Viktor, 21 years old, like her, with a chance to finally step out of Parnov's long shadow, to find a new coach who won't dictate, to become a man. He has joined the men on the international circuit and almost immediately soared 19' 2"—it's an arc, Parnov declares, that will surely carry him past Bubka's world record, 20'1 3/4", within a year or two. O.K., so he flubbed his first Olympics just a few months ago in Atlanta, placing 15th, but his preparation was hindered by injuries, and besides, he's so young and gifted, he'll have a few Games more. He could live without a father now, no?
No. Now he's on the other side of the world, living with Parnov's family and with his best friend, Dmitri Markov, the second stud in Parnov's vaulting stable. Just to train in warm weather for a few months and then return, they said.
There's a vague uneasiness inside Tatiana. She's continuing her 400-meter hurdling career, but her heart's not in it anymore. She has topped out at No. 6 among Russian women. She has chosen a path, a phys-ed degree, that has disappointed her mother, Lizia, who as a 20-year-old volunteered to rough it in the wilderness carving out villages when the Soviet dream was still ripe, and then became a businesswoman, brokering deals that send vast quantities of timber from Russian forests to foreign companies. There's none of that daring in the life now laid out before Tatiana: become a phys-ed teacher and coach, buy a flat in Moscow, marry, have two children . . . .
The phone rings. Tatiana grabs it. It's Viktor. He loves it down there, wants to stay . . . but can Tatiana come? He misses her terribly.
"No way," she blurts.
It's so warm, Viktor says, so beautiful, so friendly. We can live with the Parnovs and with Dmitri and his wife until we find a place. I can apply for a permanent residents visa. If we married, you'd get one, too.
Her stomach falls and keeps falling, as if all the space between Russia and Australia is suddenly inside her. Her mother, her father, her sister, her dog—she's not like Viktor, she's not a risk taker; how can she leave them? And what sort of half-baked marriage proposal was that? A hundred feelings crisscross inside her, but for once in her life, she doesn't wait to untangle them. She draws in her breath and speaks the most impulsive words of her life—of course, leaving herself an escape hatch. "O.K.," she says. "I'll come . . . and we'll see."
She's lying on a topless beach, feeling the sun on her skin, listening to the blue-green water play on the powdery white sand. It's February 1997. The air's 122[degrees] warmer than in the place she just left, scented with eucalyptus instead of exhaust. She doesn't speak the language, knows nothing of the country except that it has kangaroos and koalas, hasn't a clue what she'll do. She feels happy and alive.
She knows this much: She's going to stay. She's going to take Viktor's hand, but not his name. She's not going to have a baby on her hip, the way Dmitri's wife, Valentina, does. She's going to do something for herself, something big, before she starts living for anyone else. She's going to take a modeling course to start opening up sides of herself that the 400-meter hurdles missed. She's going to follow this new feeling, that she's a flower just beginning to unfold.
"Why not try pole vault?" Viktor asks one day. It's an idle suggestion, something to engage her until she finds a direction. Well, she is fast and 5'11", and the event, for women, is only a few years old, and an expert teacher who speaks Russian is sitting on a sofa just a few feet away. But it's such a frightening thought: leaving earth on the end of a long stick, catapulting into the unknown. Pole vaulters are extremists, gamblers like Viktor—not people like her. But who is she? It's a brand-new question, a brand-new day.
She wakes up one day a few months later, as Viktor rises at dawn, and says, "I'm going with you."
"You need to be a little crazy to do this," he warns.
"I'm ready to be a little crazy," she says.
She steps up to the high bar. She can do only one chin-up. She laughs, to protect herself, then tries a swing on the high bar. Not one. Then a bench press. Not one.
"Why are you laughing?" Viktor asks. "You need to explode."
She laughs again. "Explode?"
"It's a feeling that comes from inside," he explains. "You have to learn how to explode."
Ahh, poor boy. If only he knew . . . .
She gathers her courage and attempts her first vault, forgets to release the pole, flies out of control and lands, thankfully, on the foam. At a minor local competition a few weeks later, she clears 9'10"—half as high as the best men, 4 1/2 feet shy of the best women, but not bad for a beginner with little strength using only a six-step run-up. She stares at the sky she just climbed, feeling as if she has discovered another Tatiana, one she has never met: a young woman who can fly.
Still, she sees the patronizing twinkle in Viktor's eyes, and she can smell Parnov's contempt. Sorry, the coach tells her, 21 is too old to begin learning the most difficult event in track and field. Too late to learn how to accelerate to a world-class sprint down a 35-meter runway while carrying a pole more than 2 1/2 times longer than you, then slam its tip, on the dead run, inside a sloping steel box nearly eight inches deep. Making sure that your takeoff foot hits a spot the size of a dollar bill and leaves the earth, optimally, .0005 of a second after the planting of the pole, then synchronizing a double pendulum, one a pivot between the bottom of the pole and the box, the other between your hands and the top of the pole, so that you end up vertical and upside down, pushing off on the pole and soaring with an acrobat's control over a bar set at roughly the height of the roof of a two-story house, then tumbling down, down, and landing . . . well, good god, Tatiana, landing anywhere, even on asphalt, is better than landing in bed beside a spouse who's consumed by the same near-impossible quest. So, sorry, Tatiana, Parnov says. I won't train you.
Tatiana cries. Viktor, Dmitri and Parnov depart for the summer track circuit. She awakens at dawn, alone, walks past the room where Valentina sleeps near her little boy, and goes out the door. There's Tatiana, on an empty field, clamping her lips so tightly that her mouth vanishes, counting in numbers she has just learned in English class, hunched in a position that would horrify her modeling teacher. Grunting out frog jumps alone.
By autumn, when the men return, she can do a dozen chin-ups, vault a few feet higher, talk with an Aussie accent and stroll a runway as if she owned it. Parnov? He can't not train her; she gives him no choice. The drills she can't do, she throws herself into over and over, walks off to cry hot tears, then dries her eyes, returns with those clamped lips and says, "One more time." For three hours.
In March 1998, at a meet in Brisbane, she vaults 14'3". In one year, exactly, she has become the sixth-best woman vaulter in the world. Suddenly the smirk is gone from Parnov's face, promoters from across the world are calling, and her life, like Viktor's, becomes jumping into jumbo jets, memorizing please and thank you in new languages, carrying long black tubes full of fiberglass poles through airports. Awakening in new cities to take on the world's best vaulters, taking walks and ending up in a park with a novel that makes her mind teem with new thoughts, or in a cafe with her journal, scribbling furiously.
Viktor's proud. Who else around town—hell, around earth—has a wife like his? They understand what each other is going through in a way that few husbands and wives do. It moves the big guy to metaphor, even rhapsody. A cocoon, he calls their marriage. Two creatures wrapped in a ball—he's fire and she's water, he's yang and she's yin—each feeding off the other's energy.
Imagine that cocoon. Imagine opening your eyes each morning and knowing that virtually everything you're going to do, your spouse will do right next to you. Tatiana rises first, goes straight to the shower and ratchets the faucet, cold to hot, hot to cold, burning away the old Tatiana, the lukewarm one. They stretch for 20 minutes, eat breakfast and begin taking vitamins, minerals, amino-acid supplements and creatine, the first of four installments a day. Then they enter a tunnel: a day full of running, jumping, hopping, hurtling, vaulting, showering, lunching, napping, stretching, weightlifting, tumbling, handstanding, cartwheeling, leg-lifting, high-barring, parallel-barring, driving from track to chiropractor to weight room to home to gymnasium to pool to sauna.
It's complicated inside that cocoon. At 4:01 of a 4 p.m. workout, while Viktor's still chatting and stretching, she takes off. She's come late to the game, hasn't a second to lose. "Come on," she calls back, "let's go!"
"I'm sore," he says, rubbing yet another of the injuries that have afflicted him since they moved to Australia.
"An athlete who isn't sore is an athlete who's dead," she says.
His eyes narrow. Wait a minute. He's been doing this nine years longer than she, falling from a height five feet higher than she's ever jumped, and she's telling him to quit groaning and get moving? This cannot be.
Twenty minutes later, she's in tears because she can't do something that Viktor and Dmitri can do effortlessly. What's he supposed to do, stand there like a stone while his wife sobs? but when he tries to hug her, she shoves him away, walks off . . . then hurls herself back at it. he waits until there's a break, starts explaining the technique she had trouble with, patiently breaking the movement down to its smallest elements—when suddenly her eyes frost over. This is mine, not yours, they hiss. Don't you dare try to take it.
The pressure's on him now. Everything she achieves—she's nailing 14 1/2-foot vaults regularly, bagging seconds and thirds in meets across Australia and Europe—is a wonder for a woman who just picked up the pole. His thirds, fourths and fifths are disappointments. He's bogged in bureaucratic quicksand trying to gain citizenship so they can both jump for Australia in the 1999 World Championships and 2000 Olympics, and the Russians are threatening him with loss of his passport if he doesn't come home and vault for them. He's the man, he's brought Tatiana here, it's all on his shoulders. She's free to focus on getting better. She's free to sculpt.
They watch her body in fascination as the transformation plays out—the cut of her muscles, the way her shoulders square, her new walk. It's a warrior's body now. She likes it. He wavers, proud of the new sculpture, nostalgic for the softer one.
His body is breaking down. Bone keeps rubbing bone in his ankle from nasty landings, until at last he has surgery and ends up in a cast. Poles keep snapping beneath him, bruising his rib cartilage, his kidneys, his bravado. He strains his Achilles, pulls a hamstring and knee ligaments, keeps inflaming his spine, elbow, shoulder and shins. Empathy from his coach? Parnov calls him a girl. Empathy from his wife? Sometimes—when there's anything left inside her to give at the end of another grueling day.
Sex dries up first during heavy training. Then affection becomes an awful lot to ask. Then basic kindness crawls out the door. Viktor and Tatiana become like wounded animals, each obsessed with self, unaware of anything except fatigue and the ache in their hips, their arms, their ankles and shoulders. Every moment, they exist in one of two conditions: training or recovery from training. His anger boils over, scalds, then evaporates. Hers congeals below the skin, below politeness, leaving him to dig helplessly for what's wrong.
Let's go out, he says suddenly. C'mon, Tatiana, just like the old days, when we'd go to dinner, talk and laugh away a few bottles of wine and a couple shots of vodka, dance till two and fall, hungry, into bed, then wake up slow and slaked at 11, like cats in a patch of sunlight, hung over and gloriously unstrung. Just what the doctor ordered, no?
"Viktor, you know I can't do that now," she replies. "It would take me two weeks to recover."
Who can jump the divider the most times in 30 seconds? That's the object of a little contest at a coaching clinic at the track stadium in Adelaide. It's sort of like Viktor andTatiana's marriage. Her eyes meet his. She's challenging him.
Wait a minute. He's supposed to vault in a competition in a few hours. She's the one who tells him he gets distracted too easily, that he lacks a systematic preparation to help give him what she has: the focus of an ice pick. Now she's going to try to prove she's the fastest divider jumper in the family? This cannot be.
He steps up to the blue plastic divider. This is crazy, he's thinking, this is my wife. But who is she anymore, his wife? The girl who used to lie in bed, weak with fever, now looks people in the eye and says, "Before, I was in the middle about everything. Now I want to have everything—or nothing." At home, she nods to the glasses of water in their hands, blurts out, "First one to finish wins!" and starts gulping. At training, she's calculated the differences between their results and begun betting him a dinner that he can't triple-hop more than two meters beyond her, frog-jump three meters more, shot-put four meters farther. She takes the wheel of their car and roars down the road as fast as he does.
All the clothes he used to drop on the floor and then find folded in his wardrobe drawers? All the breakfasts she used to prepare while he stretched, all the dinners while he rested? Why should she do all of that, when their workload is identical, when her earnings are creeping past his?
"Think of cleaning and cooking as your hobby," he replies. He says that only once.
Up come her fists when they argue. "Let's fight!" she says.
A Russian man would beat her every day, Viktor thinks. But he, too, is trying his damnedest to bring forth a new man, one who doesn't dominate by decibels, so he just looks at those fists, swallows hard and says, like an Aussie man, "Bloody hell."
Now the timer's signaling, the jumping contest has begun. Viktor's and Tatiana's feet jackhammer the ground, back and forth, on each side of the divider. It's a tie. The wife says the count's wrong, that she did one more. The husband says, "If we were punching instead of jumping, I would have killed her."
Another woman enters the picture. One usually does. Viktor is standing with his pole at the head of the runway, waiting for Parnov to watch him make a training jump. Parnov's eyes are on Emma George, the former child acrobat from Australia's Flying Fruit Circus who has somersaulted from trapeze to women's pole vault and cleared a world-record 14'11", then double-flipped into Parnov's camp, landing amidst Viktor, Tatiana and Dmitri.
Tatiana doesn't mind. Now she has a model: Observing Emma's poise with the media, her powder-keg body in a bikini, Tatiana can see how much more chiseling she needs. But Viktor?
The more attention Parnov showers on Emma, the more Parnov sneers at Viktor's rash of injuries, the wilder blows the brushfire of his oldest, deepest fear: another father abandoning him.
Viktor steams down the runway, vaults and fails to clear the height. His eyes whirl to Parnov for advice. Why, Parnov never even looked—he's still talking to Emma. "If you turn your back on me again," Viktor cries, "I'll break my pole on you!" He's leaned too much on Parnov, lived too long beneath his roof. The unthinkable occurs.
In the summer of 1998, Viktor and Tatiana's routine abruptly changes. She walks to one side of the track, he to the other. He begins his workout alone, glancing across the field between sprints. Wait a minute. This man who's his sister's husband but who's really been a father to him for 10 years, the man he followed to the other side of the world, the man who called him "the next Bubka," has dumped him and is training his wife? This cannot be.
Viktor bungles jump after jump because how can you possibly climb the sky with a whisper in your head: Give up your dream. Go to medical school, Parnov's right, you'll go nowhere, give it up. How can you possibly vault with a rumor in your head that Parnov's about to take a higher-paying job 1,300 miles to the west, in Perth; with a question in your head about what that lovely blonde ponytailed streak across the field, your wife, will do then?
She looks across the track at Viktor during her break. Her heart goes out to him, running alone over there, but she reels it back in because she has to, because nobody in Australia but Parnov can coach her at this level, because, well, you'd have to understand the quote on the back of a book she loves, a metaphysical fable called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: To realize one's destiny is a person's only obligation.
Why save this marriage? Doesn't the hero of The Alchemist, like the heroes in most other great literary quests, have to leave behind his loved one to find treasure and enlightenment? Why, you ask, don't Viktor and Tatiana face the truth, that the path to the Olympic summit isn't wide enough for two?
Because you don't know how good this is when it's good. You don't know what happens when a two-week crack appears in their schedule, like the one in September 1998 when they hop into a car and point it toward Uluru, a mystical red mountain in the heart of Australia. They end up talking all night by the dashboard's light, talking family, future, ideas, philosophy, then shove in a Doors tape and fall into a white-line trance—Well, I woke up this mornin' and I got myself a bee-ah! The future's uncertain and the end is always nee-ah!—feeling sure that their love of life on the knife's edge is strong enough to hold them together forever.
They climb Uluru. They take in the view. Then, even though the wind's howling so hard that everyone else heading up the mountain is hanging on to a chain, even though Viktor and Tatiana have been warned that people have fallen to their deaths and one misstep could smash their livelihood and dreams, they run down the mountain. They hug and kiss at the bottom and cry, "We survived!"
Parnov leaves for Perth. Emma follows. Dmitri vacillates, languishes . . . and finally follows too. Tatiana stays.
No more coach, no more father figure, no more sister and no more—with the move of Dmitri and Valentina—close friends. No one to vent to or confide in about the twisting alleyways of their relationship. Money, as Viktor's career wanes, is drying up, and Australian citizenship is still nowhere in sight. All they have is each other. Sometimes it feels as if they've wagered everything and lost.
It's time for Parnov's boy to become a man, to experiment with approaches Parnov would've spat at. They try new techniques with the pole, bake with whole grains, fast, do yoga and turn to the psychokinetic powers of their friend Alexandra Gourieva, a psychologist, to heal injuries. They drink up books about omens and metaphysics, the hidden chutes between the unseen and the material worlds. Two kind men from the South Australia Institute of Sports, pole vault coach Alan Launder and biomechanist John Gorman, help shore up Viktor's battered psyche, guide him and Tatiana through training sessions and introduce a new concept: fun. In early 1999 Viktor persuades Vitaly Petrov, the coach who parted ways with Bubka and now coaches vaulters for the Italian national team, to oversee his and Tatiana's training a few months a year at Petrov's base in Formia, Italy. Where's it taking them, all this flux?
On a torrid July evening in Salamanca, Spain—after they've spent the spring of 1999 under Petrov's gaze—the glow that Tatiana and Viktor have always envisioned fills the cocoon. Viktor soars 19'4", higher than he's ever gone, to win the men's competition. Tatiana, about to make a crucial jump a few meters away, rips off her blinkers, for once, races over and kisses him, then races back to her pole. She sails 14'9", higher than she ever has, to take the women's vault. It's magic, floating hand in hand through the old city that night. They're "the future of the pole vault," Petrov has said, peaking at the perfect time, just a few weeks from the World Championships in Seville—if only Viktor can wrangle Australian citizenship in time!
On the eve of the championships, the papers come through. The women's vault is scheduled first. Tatiana flies to Seville ahead of Viktor. The mere possibility that her life's biggest moment might be undone by their tension, by idle chatter or by the Depeche Mode CD blasting in Viktor's headphones as she reads, meditates and prepares, isn't worth risking.
Viktor takes a seat in Petrov's empty apartment in Formia beside a couple of pizzas and turns on the TV. Tatiana begins jumping. He begins eating, sweating and screaming. Three vaults, three screams, three bars cleared, three women left—Tatiana, Stacy Dragila of the U.S. and Anzhela Balakhonova of Ukraine—staring at 14'9", the height Tatiana has just conquered in Salamanca. Viktor can feel it coming: world record, baby, gold medal! Funny, though. As full as he feels of joy and excitement and pizza, that's how empty he feels, too. He keeps jamming pizza into his mouth.
The moment's just a little too new to her. She makes tiny mistakes in her next three jumps, but tiny, in the pole vault, is a monster. When she has finished third, the stadium's big-screen camera comes in tight on her and won't let go, and suddenly Viktor is watching his beautiful wife's face, smiling and crying, as multitudes of Spanish wolves whistle louder . . . and louder. She kisses her hands and casts them up at them, and they go wilder still.
He turns off the TV. Impossible—he still feels empty. He finds himself after midnight in a restaurant gulping down oysters, alone, the husband of the World Championships' bronze medalist. A few hours later he races from his bed to the bathroom, then does it again. Wait a minute. He's sitting on a toilet purging his guts out, then wobbling into a hospital, being lashed to an IV and told he has food poisoning, while she . . . . How can this be?
Of course, it's just a foul oyster that makes Viktor expel everything that enters him that night. Only those who believe in the metaphysical, in hidden chutes between the unseen and material worlds, could possibly see it as metaphor. Tatiana's flying. Viktor never jumps.
He tries to lower his head and live happily in the sunken side of the cocoon. He helps clean the house and makes gangbuster salads. He sits quietly in the back while she strides to the podium, waits patiently on the fringe while reporters ask her one more question. He holds up the foil to reflect more light on her face for a camera crew, reaches out lovingly to remove the poppy seed from her lip before she goes on the air.
None of this seems strange to her. Her mother, the dealmaker, always takes charge at home, while her father, who repairs machines at a jewelry factory, sits in the background, gentle as a whisper. She shows Viktor her appreciation by making him three-course candlelit dinners. She tries to include him in everything, even has him there at ringside when she leaps on a trampoline, stark naked, in front of a stranger and a camera for hours—the only athlete who consents to frontal nudity in Australia's Black + White magazine. For her, it's a chance to unfold another hidden self. "She's the most comfortable female athlete I've ever shot nude," says the photographer, James Houston. "She has the least fears. She just goes for it."
Viktor's so proud that he lays the pictures out in front of their agent, Rick Carter, and demands, "Isn't she beautiful?"
"Viktor, you don't go around showing blokes pictures of your wife like that!" Carter protests.
"You don't like to look?" asks Viktor.
"Of course I do, but—"
"Well, then," Viktor cries. "Look!"
But all along, beneath his pride, beneath all the flexibility his marriage has brought out in him, there's a dark voice he keeps trying to push away. Who's to say if it's more the brittleness of his ego or more the transformation of Tatiana? Her no grows more stubborn when they disagree, feels more to him like treason. The dark voice says: She has put herself above you.
It comes down to a training camp in the wilderness of Poland, a foot and a half of snow on the ground. A new millennium has dawned, three days earlier, and the year will bring the Olympics to their new homeland and the women's pole vault to the Games for the first time. Only a week earlier, through Carter back in Adelaide, they bought their first house. They're barely speaking.
Tatiana's quadriceps keeps spasming, her first injury that hasn't healed quickly. Viktor hits a takeoff wrong, injures his wrist, foot and back. Petrov keeps pushing them. Viktor, fearful of the injuries' getting worse, the way they always did under Parnov, refuses to go along, keeps doing one less of whatever Petrov demands and urging his wife to do likewise so they can heal. Tatiana, chiding Viktor for not trying hard enough, keeps doing one more than Petrov demands and reinjuring her leg. It's killing her, her monstrous determination, and it's killing Viktor. How can he show a dozen of the world's most aggressive males who's in charge if he can't even show his wife? How can he feel strong when a look from her makes him feel so bloody weak? This damn female-male, yin-yang crisscross has gone too far—there's no air left in the cocoon.
They enter their room. He opens his suitcase. She stares at him in disbelief. "What are you doing?" she cries. A strangled laugh comes from her throat and then turns to a sob. "If you're so determined to be the best pole vaulter in the world," he shouts, "it's better I live alone. Then you can keep all your energy for yourself. You don't believe in me anymore. You think I'm a loser."
She struggles for breath. He packs all his clothes, letting everything he's been clenching pour out. He wants her to give up the pole vault. He wants her at home, cooking their dinners, raising the children he thought they'd have by now. Then comes the question that's hung over them for 2 1/2 years: "Which is more important to you?" he demands. "Our marriage or the pole vault?"
Everything hangs on her answer. She tries to swallow her sobs. "Viktor," she says, "I was sleeping before. Now I've woken up. I've found the thing I love. I have an opportunity—who knows, it may be my one chance to do something great in my life, and I want to grab it. I could give that up for you, but I wouldn't be happy, and if I'm not happy, I can't give you happiness. So don't ask that question. It's true, I don't have as much to give to you now. I won't hand the leadership over to you, I can't make myself weak again. But I still believe in you, and I still believe in our family. I know this isn't easy. But I'm not looking for an easy life. If we survive this, we'll survive anything."
Something even deeper than the dark voice tells Viktor that few women are capable of such a reply. That marriage, by nature, is finding yourself upside down and falling through space, the most difficult event of all. Viktor stays.
So what's this story's ending? Truth is, there isn't one, because the Olympics have yet to start and who can say if what worries their friends most—Tatiana's winning a medal, Viktor's falling short—will come to pass? Both have struggled to find their form all summer: Viktor beset by self-doubt, erratic on the European circuit but always capable of the monster vault that he and Petrov feel lies within him; Tatiana hampered by a pulled hamstring. But a love story must have an ending, so let's leap to the one we've got to root for.
It's Tatiana and Viktor 45 years from now, at 70, leafing through photo albums with their grandchildren. Showing them pictures of the great cities they visited, the landmarks and stadiums and lights and people. Of them running and jumping, eating and laughing. Of them at 30, realizing another dream and living in that tiny Aboriginal village. Of Viktor the day he finally got his medical degree with Tatiana beside him holding their third child, the one bruised from his leap off the top bunk.
Funny, they went right past those pictures of the Sydney Games without saying anything. Not a mention of how sometimes, when you're young, you do things that seem selfish, so some piece of you doesn't get snagged back there, so all of you can be there later, ready to give, down the road. Not a word about how small the Olympics really are compared to a whole life lived with someone you love, and everything that spreads out from it.
No, they say only two things as they close the photo albums, things they realized during that Olympic year. "Being a great pole vaulter is incredibly hard," Viktor says, "but marriage turned out to be the most challenging thing of my life. I hadn't realized how difficult it is to keep a marriage and how easy it is to break one."
"We had really good times and really bad times," adds Tatiana. "We played with fire—I wouldn't recommend what we've done to anyone else. But we always knew we were alive."