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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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 café 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 14½-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.

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