World champions. World Games champions. World champions again. And for Marina Chernova, GOAT status in Acrobatic Gymnastics. What could be better? A little more recognition never hurts -- and Russia’s Acrobatic Mixed Pair got it last week when they were named The World Games Athletes of the Year 2018, topping the polls by about 6,000 votes, surpassing American powerlifter Jennifer Thompson for the honor.
Though it’s not going to make PopSugar headlines, the award is boon for the fledgling sport. Acro is the dinner theatre of gymnastics, an unforgettable floor show where the human body serves as the apparatus. (Trust me, it’s a lot cooler to behold than that makes it sound.) Competitors compete in men’s and women’s pairs, mixed pairs, women’s trios and men’s quad, and the things they do are incredible even by gymnastics standards. Have a look at Chernova and Pataraia in action, and you’ll see why:
For all this, Acro isn’t a well-known discipline, though it is well established. World Championships have been going on since 1974, but the sport suffers immensely because it is not part of the Olympic Games. Eastern European countries, particularly Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are particularly strong at it (as are China and Belgium), but since Olympic sports receive far more funding, Acro athletes tend to train without much in the way of money or glory.
The want of the former (and, presumably, the latter) causes them to leave the sport sooner than they otherwise might. Performance companies like Cirque du Soleil and Dragone have room for these performers, and the lure of traveling the world while performing in a show and earning a good living is hard to resist.
Chernova is unique because, well, she stuck around. She was 18 years old in 2014 when she debuted at the World Championships as the partner of Revaz Gurgenidze, a world champion at the end of a career that had spanned nearly a decade. They were polar opposites on the mat -- beefy Gurgenidze, with his black ponytail and passionate gestures, and fragile-looking Chernova, fair-haired and delicate -- and neither the judges nor the audience could get enough of them.
For Gurgenidze, it was a career curtain call, but for Chernova, it was the beginning. When Gurgenidze exited stage right, she teamed up with Georgii Pataraia, and together the two set out to break difficulty barriers. (Look out for the throw triple somersaults in their routines -- those are what sets them apart.) Chernova is now the only acro gymnast ever to have won three world titles in mixed pairs competition, in addition to World Games gold, which for now serves as the Olympics for Acrobatic gymnasts.
That might not be the case forever though -- social media has exposed Acro to a whole new public, and the IOC has sat up and taken notice. At the World Games in 2017, IOC members were front and center at the head table during the days of acro competition, and all of them were suitably awed by the discipline, if the photos they took and applause they doled out is any indication. Acro made its Olympic debut this past summer at the Youth Olympic Games in Lima, where Bulgarians Mariela Kostadinova and Panayot Dimitrov took the gold medal in mixed pairs, the only acro event contested. To be seen whether Acro flips into Paris in 2024...