SI Vault
 
Scenes from a Marriage
Gary Smith
September 04, 2000
Russian-born Viktor Chistiakov and Tatiana Grigorieva, who will pole-vault for Australia in Sydney, gave up their homeland—and almost each other—for their sport.
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September 04, 2000

Scenes From A Marriage

Russian-born Viktor Chistiakov and Tatiana Grigorieva, who will pole-vault for Australia in Sydney, gave up their homeland—and almost each other—for their sport.

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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° 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.

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