There's never been anyone in the pole vault quite like him. He towers over his foes at 6'7½", 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.