“I was kind of relieved, because I knew we weren’t ready,” Nicole says, echoing Shawn’s thinking. When they got to the Vegas Acro Cup in February 2018, they blew away the competition, Eicher says. “That’s when we knew we were back on track.”
In July 2018, Nicole and Shawn won gold at the USA Gymnastics Championships in North Carolina for mixed pairs at the 11-16 age level. Soon after, they were selected for the U.S. team that will compete at international events in 2019.
“It’s pretty unusual for someone who has no background, not even a gymnastics or dancing background, to progress to that level so quickly,” Eicher says. The Bethesda siblings have set their sights even higher for 2020, when they hope to be chosen for the team that will compete at the world championships in Geneva. At a family gathering in Kimmel’s Bethesda home one recent afternoon, Shawn and Nicole showed off their new leotards and ticked off the previous year’s successes. “We proved everybody wrong,” Shawn says with a smile.
Coaches and trainers who’ve worked with Nicole and Shawn say one key to their success is their connection on the floor, which helps sell the storytelling aspect of their performances to judges. Arthur Davis, the siblings’ Los Angeles-based choreographer, says acro gymnastics is a physical manifestation of an intense relationship that requires immense trust—a confidence that your partner will catch and support you, even if you’ve had a nasty spat. He sees that kind of connection and understanding between Shawn and Nicole. Even as Shawn struggled to catch up to his sister’s skill level in the early days, she was patient with him. “She was willing to wait, and that’s a beautiful thing,” Davis says. “There’s a general ease between them.”
Their mother, Maryam Seifi, says the siblings have always had each other’s backs. When family friends threw a party and relegated the children to the basement to watch television, 6-year-old Shawn insisted that the other kids make room for his little sister in the front row so she could see the screen. In third grade, Nicole confronted an older boy whom she believed was bullying her brother and told him to knock it off. That instinct to protect one another has grown stronger since they teamed up for gymnastics, Seifi says. Nicole acts as a caregiver of sorts when she practices with her brother, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 12 and wears a glucose monitor that sets off an alarm on his phone when his sugar level is off. Early on in their partnership, she roomed with him when they were on the road so she could make sure he woke up to the alarm if necessary. Shawn acts as Nicole’s number one defender, recently pleading for leniency on his sister’s behalf when she set up a sleepover at their house without her mother’s permission.
“I was going to take her phone away, but he talked me out of it,” says Seifi, a dentist who owns StarBrite Dental in Rockville and District Smiles in D.C.
Like all siblings, they bicker occasionally. One point of friction is rooted in their personality differences, Shawn says. At practice, they tend to quarrel about things like whether she’s tucking her knees close enough to her chest during a flip or whether he threw her too low, both of which can lead to a fall. The falls happen often during practice, but rarely in competition. “If we fall on one of our skills, my thinking is we shouldn’t keep getting upset about it, but Nicole keeps getting upset, and that can lead to an argument,” Shawn says. “I’m a bit more laid-back than she is, even when it comes to school or doing chores. I don’t get stressed very easily.”
Nicole says the disagreements tend to ramp up when they’re not nailing their moves in the weeks leading up to a major competition. “I get frustrated, and he gets mad at me for being frustrated, and then I get mad at him for getting mad at me,” she says. “Sometimes we’ll just finish the practice without talking to each other. It can be five to 10 minutes, or maybe longer.”
Nicole’s fascination with the sport started in the summer before fifth grade, when she and Shawn spent the weekdays at their sister Nina’s house. Kimmel was busy tending to her newborn baby, their parents were working, and Shawn seemed content to eat cereal in front of the TV all day. Nicole was bored, so Kimmel enrolled her in acro gymnastics classes, which eventually led her to join the Xtreme Acro team that September and commit to the sport year-round. “I loved it because it made me feel like I could fly,” Nicole says.
A year later, Nicole was rushed to the emergency room after falling on her neck and spraining it during practice. The attending doctor declared an end to her gymnastics career, placed a brace around her neck and said she had to keep it on for six months. “There she was, an 11-year-old in a neck brace crying her eyes out because the doctor said she was done with gymnastics,” Seifi says. “She looked at me and said, ‘Mom, that cannot happen. It absolutely cannot.’ ”
Kimmel, who manages her mother’s Rockville dental office, says Nicole saw a few doctors that week for other opinions. One suggested taking off the brace. He said keeping it on would weaken her neck muscles and slow her recuperation, so off it went. A mere 12 days after the scare, Nicole eased her way back to practice, and Kimmel became her manager by default, in part because she had a flexible boss.