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racing with destiny

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Floor Exercise: full-in double pike (E), triple twisting back layout (E), double attitude spin (D), switch split leap (B) + split leap 1.5 turns (D), 1½ twist (C) + front full twist (C), tour jeté 1/2 (C), double turn with leg held in split (D), double pike (D)


At 5:00 on the morning after she made the US team for Worlds, Payson Keeler threw her alarm clock across the room and went back to bed. She curled up on one side, clutched the Olympic gold medal Sasha loaned her in one hand, and wrapped the other around the pillow underneath her head.

Her mom knocked on the door at 5:30 and again a few minutes later; Payson ignored her. At 5:50, Becca knocked and said they were leaving for the Rock. Payson didn’t respond.

She hadn’t slept that night. Mostly she’d cried into her pillow in a way she’d never done before, even when she’d broken her back. That time, though, she’d had Sasha.

With Sasha, anything felt possible. With Sasha, she didn’t need to worry about getting back her Yurchenko double; it was a matter of perfecting her Yurchenko 2½.

It was the same with bars. When she worked with Sasha, it was easy to concentrate on this release and not flash back to the one at Nationals. When Sasha wasn’t around, when he was with Lauren on beam or Emily on vault, Payson trained pirouettes, mounts, and dismounts – never releases.

Eventually Payson fell asleep to the sound of rain on the roof and the quiet of the house around her. She dreamed in dance, attitudes and fouettés, all the elements she had always rushed through on beam and floor. Over and over, she tried to complete an Okino on beam. She could never find her spot, and fell, over and over.

She woke up a couple of hours later, feeling like she’d fallen from the beam a few dozen times. She thought about calling a friend, but Emily was probably meeting with lawyers, Kaylie was in the hospital, Lauren was Lauren and not good at commiserating, and everyone else would be at the Rock, training.

Since Payson didn’t have any other ideas about what to do, she hung Sasha’s medal back on her mirror, put on her running clothes, and got on the treadmill.

It felt good to let her mind go blank and to just focus on listening to the rhythm of her feet landing.

So Payson ran.


Sasha Belov needed new windshield wiper blades. It had been sunny when he left Boulder, but sometime overnight, while he was parked at a Wal-Mart in some tiny town in central Nebraska, trying and mostly failing to sleep, it had started raining and hadn’t let up for five flat, monotonous hours. He’d spent all five hours squinting through the streaks on his windshield where the old blades were cracked from the dry Boulder summer.

Around lunchtime he stopped in the next town off I-80, a town that looked a lot like the last one. He drove around until he found an auto store. By the time he returned to his RV, wiper blades in hand, his hair was dripping into his eyes, his shirt was clinging to his skin, and his jeans felt like denim weights.

At least it wasn’t cold, and he couldn’t get any more wet while he changed the wiper blades.

A few minutes later, after standing ankle-deep in a muddy pothole and ruining his shoes, Sasha stripped down, hung his clothes in the shower to dry, changed into dry boxers, and sat down to eat a bowl of cereal while not thinking about what he was doing, moving 1000 miles semi-spontaneously.

Normally Sasha excelled at not thinking. No one became a world-class gymnast without learning how to block out every distraction, without knowing how to focus only on this moment, completing this skill and then moving to the next. It didn’t work as well, though, sitting in an RV rather than completing a routine he’d done hundreds of times before.

As a gymnast, Sasha had to worry about Sasha – he didn’t owe anything to anyone, and wasn’t responsible to or for anyone. His life was different now; he was different now. He hadn’t been a particularly disciplined, rule-abiding gymnast, leaving practice on the smallest whim, but as a coach it wasn’t like him to walk out on his team and drive across several states larger than most European countries based on a casual offer made to him when he won his Olympic gold medal.

He didn’t have the luxury of staying in Boulder; too many bridges had been burned – not always by him – and the city wasn’t large enough for him to start his own gym and remain out of the constant political jockeying at Rocky Mountain Gymnastics.

Sasha wasn’t in a position to help anyone if he stayed where he was, or he wouldn’t be taking this gamble. He didn’t stop worrying about his gymnasts just because he wasn’t their coach; he’d spent too many long hours of exhausting work with them to leave them behind without a damn good reason.

Even if he’d stayed and tried to help, he wasn’t qualified to help Emily or Kaylie, and what Lauren needed was something he couldn’t provide. But as much as he couldn’t help the other three elites, Sasha knew he could help Payson.

He’d helped her feel valued at the Rock while she was out with her broken back and he’d been the one who showed her how her gymnastics could evolve to adjust for the inch she’d grown while recovering. When Payson had doubted herself, he’d always been able to find a way to believe enough for both of them.

What Sasha didn’t know was if his help now would be good for Payson. The lines between coach and friend were blurred enough, and he understood why that had confused her; right now he didn’t know which she needed more. If he were honest with himself, he wasn’t sure whether loaning his medal to her had been the action of a friend or a coach.

Even without considering the problems inherent in blurred boundaries, she had enough obstacles between her and her goal. He didn’t want his reputation as a renegade to become another roadblock, and wasn’t sure his unorthodox method of helping her earn a spot on the Worlds roster when she wasn’t on the national team would be without long-term repercussions for her career.

Payson’s belief in him had helped him retain the Keelers’ support through all the recent ups and downs; they’d taken a real risk letting him coach Payson at a different gym. Plus, he wasn’t sure how many coaches could successfully coach Payson and Becca together now that Becca was ready to train for elite status. Most coaches would encourage a rivalry between them, especially now that Payson had to add more artistry to her gymnastics when that had always been her younger sister’s forte.

The Keelers had insisted on raising their daughters with as normal a childhood and family life as was possible in gymnastics, and they were a close, supportive family. Payson and Becca were naturally competitive, but encouraging a specific rivalry would undermine their support system and ultimately prove counter-productive. Coaching them on the same skills, Becca learning them and Payson regaining them, would be a potential minefield for any coach. He hoped he’d convinced his father to watch his step with them.

A particularly loud thunderclap jolted Sasha back to the present. He looked down at the half-eaten, fully soggy bowl of cereal in front of him and realized he had taken a much longer lunch break than he’d planned for. He didn’t know what sort of welcome he’d receive in Wisconsin or even if the Hamm family’s offer was still good after six years. Whether anyone would join him there was another question mark looming over the near future. For now, he had several hours of driving ahead of him.

Thinking about the uncertainties did him no good, since he couldn’t guarantee what the future would bring. He could only plan and prepare for it. He turned up the music, and listened to the wipers successfully swish and the tires splash.

Mostly, Sasha drove.


Payson was back at the Rock the next morning at 6:00, still upset but calmer. Kaylie remained in the hospital, Emily had a hearing or something (the Kmetkos weren’t answering their phones or responding to texts or e-mails, so no one knew what was going on there), and Lauren stayed at home to piss off her dad (and possibly to mourn for her mother; with Lauren, no one was ever quite sure). It felt nothing like a normal day.

And normal didn’t look like it would return anytime soon. Mr. Belov was a great coach—he’d coached Sasha, after all—but he was harsh and impersonal and his style was dated. It was like going back fifteen years and being coached by Béla Károlyi, based on all YouTube clips she’d seen from Nadia Comăneci’s first perfect 10 through the Magnificent Seven’s team gold.

Their similar styles made sense, because through their rivalry they transformed Romanian gymnastics in the 1970s, before Károlyi immigrated to the US and Belov to England. Sasha’s dad had been his personal coach, but Sasha’s coaching style was more like that of the coaches he’d had as part of the UK national team. He was strict and demanding, but unlike his father he was never mean. Sasha’s criticism was constructive; his dad’s mostly seemed just mean, criticizing Payson as a person rather than correcting Payson’s gymnastics.

Sasha had taught her to show passion in her gymnastics. He taught her how to add difficulty to her dance elements and to execute skills more cleanly to compensate for her lower start values. Mr. Belov expected perfect technique but emphasized power over artistry. He didn’t have patience for her not having the tumbling power she’d had the year before or for her not automatically adjusting to her new, higher center of gravity.

The camp for the US’s Worlds team wasn’t much less weird. The committee had brought in Yevgeny Marchenko as interim coach, and Marchenko had brought Kelly Parker to watch what was supposed to be a closed camp. The committee had, at least, ordered Kelly to watch with the parents rather than on the floor, so Payson managed to stay out of range of Kelly’s cutting remarks. After years of listening to Kelly, Payson only felt a little bit bad to see Kelly injured.

Payson had always been able to concentrate well, but with only one event to train, she learned to forget everything except the mat. She tumbled from corner to corner and danced everywhere in between. Everything she felt, from the frustrations in the gym to the hurt she felt about Sasha leaving without a proper goodbye or forwarding address, went into the floor.

She pointed her toes, stuck her landings, and prepared to compete against her ghost when the international judges watched her on the floor.

At night, when she couldn’t sleep, she’d think of Sasha and sneak out for a run, imagining herself running to Sasha after winning the medal they’d worked for together.

Payson ran forward, but couldn’t outrun wanting Sasha back.

Sasha found Waukesha refreshing; the town didn’t have the glamour or pretension that had surrounded him in Boulder. His RV didn’t look as out of place in parking lots and his well-worn clothes blended in when he went out for a beer. After long days spent transforming the Hamms’ barn from a makeshift gym into a small gym with room for the four apparatuses and a tiny bathroom, beer was almost required. He hoped to finish building a loft over the floor mat by the end of Worlds; he didn’t want to invite the Keelers and Kmetkos to move to a gym that didn’t even have a locker room.

By the week of the World Championships, Sasha had found a suitably dark, anonymous bar that carried the meet on one TV. The beer was mostly American, but for once it didn’t matter; he needed to be sober to do his job and to make sure Payson was okay.

He saw Kaylie a few times, talking to Lauren in background shots. She’d been named alternate to the team, and seemed to be recovering well. With Kaylie and Kelly Parker out, Lauren was one of the strongest gymnasts on the team and took full advantage of the opportunity; she qualified for both the all-around and beam finals.

Earlier in the year, no one except her coaches would have predicted that Emily Kmetko would even compete at Nationals, much less go to Rotterdam for Worlds. Sasha suspected even Emily had not imagined that she would be going home with two medals, the team bronze and silver from the floor final.

That week Sasha focused most intensely on catching every glimpse he could on Payson. She came alive on the floor, winning the crowd over like few others there, both with the precision of each skill and the passion she showed for what she was doing. Even though her start value was the lowest on the American team, her clean execution and artistry helped her qualify for the event finals.

Other than when she found out she’d qualified for the event finals and the team medal ceremony, Payson looked wistful and somehow alone. The sadness didn’t even fully leave her face when she stood on the podium after winning individual bronze on the floor. Sasha suspected that he was the cause of at least some of the sadness, and hoped his peace offering would be enough.

Monday morning, the day after the meet ended, Sasha mailed three invitations—one to Emily, one to Becca, and one to Payson. Inside each envelope was a note card holding four photos of the gym he’d just finished renovating; the only things written on the card were the gym’s address and phone number.

Sasha waited.


Wednesday night, Kim Keeler handed the invitations to her daughters. She didn’t tell them she’d recognized the handwriting immediately and had been waiting all day to find out what Sasha had to say after weeks of painful silence.

Payson and Becca were both confused by the unsigned notes; Kim caught Sasha’s meaning more quickly, but didn’t share her thoughts with them. She did say that they were from Sasha, and they could call him tomorrow.

That night, after the girls were in bed, Kim called Mark at his apartment in Minnesota. They agreed they’d all have to go see the gym and get more details on what Sasha was offering, but thought the idea of moving to Wisconsin deserved serious consideration. Waukesha was significantly closer than Boulder to Minnesota and Mark’s job; if they moved, they could spend more time together as a family. Plus, both Payson and Becca had thrived under Sasha’s coaching as they had with none of their other coaches.

Payson called Sasha Thursday morning after practice. He told her that he was starting a small gym and inviting her, Becca, and Emily to be his only gymnasts. Payson was thrilled at the idea; she’d also tried to ask Sasha about what he’d been doing and why he hadn’t called or e-mailed. He refused to answer and said they’d talk when everyone came to see the gym.

Payson and Becca both loved the idea, and Payson was relieved that she’d be working with Sasha again soon. She’d talked her parents into experimental spinal surgery; she knew she and Becca together could convince their parents that moving again would be the best thing for their family.

That night, Payson slept, holding Sasha’s medal and her own new medal. She dreamed she was running toward something; she couldn’t see what, but it made her happier than she had ever been.

Sasha dreamed, too. He dreamed of Payson winning Olympic gold and felt happier than when he won his. He picked her up and swung her around, both of them overwhelmed with joy by accomplishing what they’d spent so long working toward.

As they slept, Payson and Sasha smiled.