Antwerp’s Acrobatics: the 26th Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships (1/2)

Spring 2016, a random evening. I was very busy doing nothing and watching videos of Irish dancing on YouTube, when I accidentally – and probably fatefully – happened to find the starting point of a now burning passion of mine: acrobatic gymnastics. From the first video that I watched, dozens followed. I fell literally in love with the sport; I began to support Great Britain’s team, which was the very first time in my life I ever actually supported a team. I started to train, on my own, got one of my splits, lost it. And eventually, I learnt that following that customary rule that makes the World Championships take place every two editions in Europe (2010 in Wroclaw, Poland; 2012 in Orlando, Florida; 2014 in Paris, France; 2016 in Putian, China), the 2018 ones would be in Antwerp, Belgium. And luckily enough, I had move closer to Belgium at the beginning of the year, from Lyon to Reims…

And there I found myself, on the 14th of April 2018, in a weekend with friends in Antwerp, witnessing the 26th Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships and thus, making one of my biggest dreams of the past two years come true.

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Acrobatics is a sub-discipline of gymnastics, quite less well-known than its colleague Artistic gymnastics (the one that involves beams, uneven bars, floor exercises and vaults: Simone Biles, geddit?) but, to me, much more impressive. It is practiced by teams of two, three or four gymnasts, composed of a ‘top’ and one or more ‘base’. It thus entirely relies on trust and cooperation: each gymnast is responsible for no less than the life of the others. The routines consist of an alliance between artistic elements and transitions, as well as ‘balance elements’ – human pyramides, static, and that need to be held for three seconds – and ‘dynamic elements’ – huge throws, somersaults, tumbling, stunts… you’ll be stunned. All gymnasts are divided in five categories: men’s pair, women’s pair, mixed pair, women’s group (three women) and men’s group (four men), all having different characteristics, balance and dynamic elements, which makes it a sport wonderfully diverse, rich and amazingly flabbergasting.

In every international competition, the teams first have to present three routines during the qualifiers: a ‘balance’ routine, a ‘dynamic’ routine, and a ‘combined’ routine. The sum of the scores of those three is computed, and the six to eight best teams go to the final, in which they present their combined routine again, from scratch. Every time, they are graded by judges on three main criteria: the difficulty of the routine, the artistic value of the performance, and the quality of the execution. Eventually, a 0,3 point penalty is withdrawn when a static element lasts less than three seconds.

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For the past two years I have been an acrobatic gymnastics junky. It even made one of my gymnast friends say that « Camille is the only non-gymnast that knows more about gymnastics than actual gymnasts » – which if it happens to be true, could also not be a compliment at all. But the truth is, I do watch acrobatics whenever I wash my dishes, eat alone, stretch after dancing…

So I arrived in Antwerp, Belgium, the day before the weekend started. Oddly enough, my carpooling driver let me right in front of the Lotto Arena, where the Championships had started a few days ago, with other age categories. Being left, without any access to Internet, in a country I didn’t speak the language of, I started the weekend very successfully by getting lost, for two long but deliciously funny hours, alone in Antwerp. Eventually, thanks to the help of locals, I arrived on time to the house I was couch-surfing in, and after a few other adventures but tons of meetings with nice people, I got in the Lotto Arena on Saturday morning, with the amazed eyes of a fangirl who sees her dreams come true.

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From the first minutes, I can remember having a perfect seat and thus a perfect view on the stage. I can remember the opening music and the: « Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 26th Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships » that was finally real. Everything I have watched on a screen for years was in front of me, I was there – and even more than the rest, I can remember an explosion of colors and assisting to the first routine I’ve ever seen somewhere else than on my computer. It was the combined routine of the German female group and beyond any rationality, I suddenly thought, « Oh my God, they are shaking, they are actual humans! »

From this whole Championship, I’ll remember a little disappointment. Two years ago, after the last World Championship, the FIG (Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique) had decided to double the value of the execution and to make difficulty count for at least ten points less than before (scores being most generally around 25 and 30 with a precision of 0.001). Most probably because of this, I found the elements much less difficult and thus impressive than the years before, as it gave less incentives to gymnasts to actually take risks, and more incentive to achieve easier stunts, but to achieve them better. Even worse, it was not always the objectively most impressive routine that would get the best score. On a little happy note, I had the feeling that there were numerous routines on actual songs with lyrics – we saw routines on « We will rock you », « Bella ciao! », « Raining men », « Hit the road jack » or even Lindsey Stirling!

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But before anything else, it was even better than everything I could have imagined. I did not have many surprises on the winners – Russia won in all categories but the Men’s Group, in which they were third. But for the rest, it was as if these Championships did their best to surprise and impress me, myself, personally. On Sunday, when I was queuing to buy my ticket, I saw, completely by chance, Ineke van Schoor, the 2015 women’s group European champion, a meter away from me… And as I was about to leave, my friends suddenly asked me « Is that not the gymnast you’ve been constantly telling us about? » and I saw, a few meters away, Adam Upcott and his base Charlie Tate, the British men’s pair I was supporting and could exchange a few words with, after they got a completely unexpected – it was their very first year as a men’s pair – but well-deserved bronze medal…

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It has been great, for a weekend, not to care about school but about Great Britain getting a medal. It has been great to go crazy when seeing Marina Chernova, a Russian living legend that I had seen so many times on my screen. She eventually got a third world champion’s title with her mixed pair. It has been crazy again, but for another reason, to understand that the reigning men’s group champions, China, who achieved two years ago the best routine I’ve ever seen, would not even get to the final. They were replaced by another Chinese group, that at the general surprise, finished second behind Israel! And I’m not even talking about the Ukrainian mixed pair that performed their combined routine on a French song – absolutely not well-known, but it was FRENCH, and it made this moment nothing less than perfect.

When it ended, there was nothing else remaining on the stage than glitter, that had fallen from the leotards like dust from the stars. I had dozens of notes and photos, a brand-new acrobatics sticker on my computer, life-lasting memories and a strange feeling of achievement. When I saw that we were back to France, I had a look backwards, and one last thought for the Myself that used to regret not to have started gymnastics when I was still young and flexible. I left that one in Antwerp; seeing gymnastics with one’s own eyes can also help one choose one’s fight. Indeed, there are other ways to fight for this incredible sport to be more recognized than by practicing it.

In latin, « arena », from the Lotto Arena, means « sand »; and if I can add my small grain of sand to the pyramid by writing about this sport’s beauty, I’ll consider the work as done – even if it implies being still that bad at doing handstands and cartwheels…

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