Shawn and Nicole at home in Bethesda with their parents, William Powell and Maryam Seifi (center), their sister, Nina Kimmel (left), and Nina’s husband and children. Photo by Skip Brown.

 

Today, the family’s life revolves around gymnastics. Kimmel coordinates Nicole and Shawn’s practice schedules, books their travel and helps select their leotards, which are custom-made in Spain. The siblings practice six days a week for a total of roughly 20 hours. A nanny takes them to weekday practices, and their father, William Powell, usually picks them up. “I’m basically a chauffeur, videographer, fan and check writer,” says Powell, who runs his wife’s D.C. office. Last year, Seifi arranged to have her annual staff getaway in Milwaukee so she could drive straight to Chicago afterward for one of Nicole and Shawn’s competitions. The siblings skipped a Thanksgiving vacation in Florida in November to squeeze in more training leading up to an event. The family didn’t even plan its usual Christmas getaway for the past two years because the kids had to practice. On the plus side, scheduling logistics are less complicated now than they were with Nicole’s previous partner. “At least we’re dealing with the vacation plans of one family instead of two,” Kimmel says.

The demands of the sport leave little time for socializing. Shawn was transitioning into his freshman year at Landon from Cabin John Middle School when he took up gymnastics, which left him with little time to bond with new classmates after school, he says. In the gym, he’s one of only two male athletes, so most of his social interactions are limited to the girls around him. “Everyone at the gym understands the time constraints,” says Shawn, whose former girlfriend was also a gymnast.

A typical weekday for him and Nicole consists of school, practice, then two to three hours of homework before bed. So far, their school work hasn’t suffered, even though they’ve had to miss two weeks of class this year for competitions and a visit with their choreographer in California, their mother says. They’re mindful that they need to keep their grades up: Nicole wants to be a dentist one day, and Shawn hopes to be a mechanical engineer with his own company. (If acro makes them more attractive to colleges, that would be a plus, their mom adds.)

“A lot of my friends at school are athletes, too, so they get it,” Nicole says. “They know that when I can do something with them, I do.” But it’s easier to spend time with her acro friends, whose schedules easily sync with hers, and five of them hang out together away from the gym in the limited free time they have. She and Shawn don’t complain much about the toll the sport has taken on their social lives, though sometimes Nicole wonders what it would have been like if she’d chosen a different sport, like skating or dance, which attracts more boys. “I go to an all-girls school and I’m in pretty much an all-girls sport,” she says.

At their gym, a nondescript cinder block warehouse with an open floor, mats strewn all around it and practice belts and ropes hanging from the ceiling, Nicole and Shawn are a fixture. She remains the fierce competitor who enjoys doling out advice to any young gymnast who asks for it. He’s the guy with a smile on his face who’s quick with a joke to defuse a tense moment. He no longer stands out as a curiosity, though once in a while he’ll attract unwanted attention. “When his sugar is low, his phone goes off and the whole gym hears it,” Nicole says as she chalks her hands midway through their 3½-hour practice one evening this past December.

Shawn can now press his sister straight into the air with one arm as she grips his fist with both hands. She maneuvers herself into a straddle position and he eases himself to his knees and then into a seated position, his sister still high above him. A gaggle of young girls practicing nearby pauses to watch. One of them mouths: “Wow.”

 

Dina ElBoghdady spent more than two decades as a journalist at several newspapers, most recently The Washington Post