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 2½ 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."