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.