Nicole Powell remembers the crowd cheering as she confidently stood on her partner’s shoulders, ready to be thrust into the air. She would flip backward twice, her body curled into a tight ball, before landing on her feet. She’d nailed the move, a double tuck, many times before. But this time, at an acrobatic gymnastics competition in Milwaukee in 2017, she landed on her rear end. The 13-year-old quickly regained her footing and pushed through the rest of the performance, knowing that she and her partner had lost their chance of advancing to more competitions anytime soon, if ever.
“I kept thinking: Why did this happen? ” says Nicole, now 14. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
“Acro” gymnasts like Nicole fuse acrobatics with music and dance, Cirque du Soleil style. Unlike artistic gymnasts, they do not perform on the vault, uneven bars or balance beam. They work only on the floor, with at least one partner. Nicole, who entered the sport at age 10, excelled at women’s pairs. She and her partner of three years had earned a gold medal for their age group at an international competition in Poland in 2016. They’d been building on that momentum by the time they arrived in Milwaukee the following summer, but the fall crushed them. The mistake cost them a spot on the U.S. acrobatic gymnastics team, which meant they would not be invited to compete in any international events in 2018—including the world championships, widely considered the Olympics of acrobatic gymnastics, a non-Olympic sport.
The botched performance also underscored a truth they’d been trying to ignore for some time: Nicole had physically outgrown her partner, who could no longer support Nicole’s height or weight, as often happens in the sport. Nina Kimmel, Nicole’s 34-year-old half sister and de facto manager, knew it was time for a change. She began an online search for other sports that might appeal to her sister, perhaps competitive cheerleading. She was still on her phone looking for options on day two of the Milwaukee competition as she watched a boy-girl duo (called a “mixed pair”) perform. That’s when the idea came to her. Seated next to Kimmel was her younger half brother, Shawn, who was 14 at the time. She looked at him and thought: He’ll do.
Nicole and Shawn noticed the sideward glances from other gymnasts the first time they practiced together at their gym in August 2017, not long after the Milwaukee competition. “Everyone was looking at me like I was crazy,” says Nicole, now a freshman at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda. Her teammates at Xtreme Acro & Cheer in Rockville recognized Shawn. He was Nicole’s brother, the guy who came to all of her competitions and chatted with them at her birthday parties. Funny and likable. But also short and scrawny, especially for a “base,” the gymnast tasked with lifting, supporting and tossing the “top” gymnast, in this case, Nicole.
“They looked at my size and they didn’t think I’d make it,” says Shawn, now 16. “Nobody thought it would last.”
Nicole’s coach, Juli Eicher, had serious doubts. “Frankly, I was in shock when [the family] came up with this crazy idea,” says Eicher, the acro program director and head coach at Xtreme Acro. She also had seen Shawn a few times before. He was almost the same size as Nicole. He couldn’t do a cartwheel, let alone reliably lift his sister over his head for a sustained period. But as Kimmel tells it, Shawn was Nicole’s best bet.
“I knew we could motivate him, watch his diet, bulk him up,” she says. “That was within my zone of influence because he’s family—and he’s a sweetheart. Going outside the family for a partner would have been harder. …Plus, he happened to be sitting next to me when I was super desperate to find a boy.”
At first, Shawn resisted. The thought of wearing a leotard intimidated him (“too tight,” he says), as did the challenge of mastering a sport in which he had no experience, especially since he wasn’t much of an athlete. He enjoyed playing soccer, but wasn’t a star player. Nicole and Nina, however, proved persuasive. They helped him fully grasp what he describes as the “physical and social benefits” of acrobatic gymnastics. Nicole puts it more bluntly. “He means muscles and girls,” she explains. “Lots of acro girls.” Shawn, a sophomore at Landon, an all-boys school in Bethesda, looks sheepish. He insists that he also wanted to help Nicole. “I’ve been around her all her life,” he says. “I knew I could do a good job working with her.” He figured he’d give it a try, and bow out if he didn’t like it.
Early on, Shawn struggled to keep up with his teammates during conditioning. At practice, he could only do three or four push-ups at a time. “I’d always be the last one to finish anything,” he says. “It was difficult and upsetting, and sometimes I wanted to quit.”
Brandon Cephas, the gym’s assistant acro coach and tumbling coach, kept him going. They tackled basic tumbling skills six to seven days a week, most notably the handstand, and worked on Shawn’s strength, stability and stamina. A few months into the training, Shawn noticed improvements. “I could hold Nicole up for a bit longer,” he says. “We kept working and working, and next thing I knew, I could lift her up with one arm, and all of a sudden we were flipping all over the place.” Shawn is now 35 pounds heavier than he was when he started, and at least an inch taller, at 5 feet 8½ inches. He’s developed six-pack abs and impressive upper body strength.
Still, the hard work wasn’t enough to make up for the vast difference in their skill levels, at least initially. With her previous partner, Nicole had competed in the 12-18 age group, an elite level that involves challenging skills and routines. When she and Shawn teamed up, they intended to compete one level lower, in the 11-16 group. But a few months into the partnership, as they approached a major competition in Las Vegas, their coach nudged them to drop one rung lower to Level 8, which is not defined by age but requires less demanding skills.