Emilia's Acrobatics, Gymnastics & Cheerleading in Laurel has been a godsend for Columbia parents Eric Chang and Amy Cheung.
After honing tumbling skills at the facility over the past eight years, their three children — Elanor, 14, Isabel, 12, and Ethan, 10 — will compete in the Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships in Belgium this month.
They’re among the latest in a long line of athletes to matriculate through the tutelage of Daniil Kostovetskiy, a native of the Ukraine who founded the gym in 1995 and is responsible for sending more than 500 acrobatic gymnasts to the U.S. national competition and 53 to the world championships. Kostovetskiy, a gray-and-white haired 70-year-old with an athletic build on his 5-foot-6-inch frame, was also instrumental in working with eventual Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes, a Maryland native, early in her career. But it has been in acrobatics where he has left his greatest legacy.
Acrobatic gymnastics focuses solely on tumbling and balancing skills on the floor — apparatuses like the vault, balance beam, high bars and rings are not part of the sport. Acrobatic gymnasts, instead, perform a mix of choreographed dance elements set to music with complex flips, rotations and other tricks reminiscent of the floor routines in the Olympics.
Athletes sometimes compete as teams of two, three or four, being thrown into the air and caught after completing jaw-dropping, gravity-defying feats. Skills are not for the faint of heart; Elanor Chang, for example, can perform a triple back, where she flips backward three times in the air before returning to the ground.
Elanor, a freshman at Atholton High School, calls Kostovetskiy “the team’s grandpa.”
“He can be firm and yell at you, but he’s trying to make you the best athlete. I feel like I can talk to him about anything,” she says.
“My kids love Daniil,” adds her father, Eric Chang. “He’s been a positive force in their life — not just with athletics but with confidence.”
Kostovetskiy, who competed from age 8 until his early 20s, was part of a wave of gymnastics coaches to leave Russia and Western Europe for the U.S. in the late 1980s. He left Ukraine a couple of years after the death of his wife, Emilia (the gym’s namesake), who was an army engineer working near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. Kostovetskiy believes that her illness was connected to the catastrophic incident.
But persecution was the deciding factor that led Kostovetskiy to relocate to the United States.
“We are Jewish,” explains his son, Yuri Kostovetskiy, who manages the facility. “We didn’t really have many options.”
He recalled the breaking point when his father was told that his children would never be admitted to the university where he was coaching because of their ethnicity.
“My father saw that there was no future for us,” he says. “We came here with two suitcases and no money at all.”
Daniil Kostovetskiy and his children settled in Pikesville, where his sister lived, and he began working as a gymnastics and acrobatics coach throughout the region — including at Hill's Gymnastics Training Center in Gaithersburg, where he worked with Dawes.
Kostovetskiy chose Howard County to rent out gym space in 1995 after parting ways with Hill’s, and focused on acrobatic gymnastics.
“I didn’t want to be competitive” with Hill’s, he says. from
In Howard County, Kostovetskiy found a welcoming community ripe with fresh, new talent.
“There are nice people. And a good population,” he says. “There’s Hispanic, Chinese, Russian, American, Indian. Everyone. I have so many kids who are different colors and from different societies.”
It’s by happenstance that the Chang children came to Kostovetskiy's gymnasium.
“The kids were little. They were constantly flipping around the house,” says their mother, Amy Cheung. “I called a list of gyms with year waiting lists. Coach Daniil told me to come in that day. And we stayed.”
Under Kostovetskiy's approach to acrobatics — with the assistance of choreographer Elena Arakelyan, a former world champion in her own right — the Chang children flourished.
“Acrobatics is their life,” says Cheung. “It has taught them discipline and time management. It’s brought a lot of structure. And they’ve made really good friends.”
Their father touts the confidence and experiences his children have as a result of the sport.
“When we talk about Kazakhstan, it’s not some ethereal place next to Russia. They know people from there. They’ve competed against them,” says Chang. “It’s amazing that they have these opportunities at this young of an age. “
And even though being dedicated to the sport at such a high level requires sacrifice — Elanor wakes up at 6:30 a.m. every day, goes to school and has a four-hour practice in the gym, all before doing her homework — the family agrees it’s worth the effort.
“I’m just so proud of them,” Cheung says. “The things they can do is so amazing. It’s a mix of talent, really hard work, grit and luck.”
Isabel, the middle child in the family, credits the guidance she’s received at the gymnasium as the reason for her success — particularly from Kostovetskiy.
“From the outside he looks strict and stern. But once you get to know him he’s really nice,” the Clarksville Middle School seventh-grader says.
Under the stoic demeanor associated with Russian coaches, lies a vulnerable, loving man, according to those who know him.
“He has walked several of his American athletes down the aisle because they didn’t have a father,” Yuri Kostovetskiy says. “I can see it in the way [the athletes] respond to him. He gives everything to those kids.”
Daniil Kostovetskiycontinues to make the daily trek from Pikesville to Laurel for his students.
“The children motivate me. Their passion is so strong,” he says. “I want to make something special for this country.”
Kostovetskiy's crowning moment will likely come next year when he opens a new gymnasium — a cavernous 17,500-square-foot facility with 36-foot ceilings that can host international competitions — a 2-acre swath of land about a half-mile from its current location. It even has room for an Olympic-size outdoor pool. Construction on the facility began in mid-March with a completion date scheduled for the beginning of 2019.
“It’s a dream coming true,” Kostovetskiy says.