Wandering through a park in China, Sean, Grant and Cade Shields decided to take some pictures.
The brothers, all elite athletes at Emilia’s Acrobatics and Gymnastics Club in Laurel, were in Putian for the Acrobatic Gymnastics World Age Group Competition in 2016. So, with a few of their teammates, they performed stunts.
Sean stood on the ground with Grant on his shoulders. A partner balanced on Grant’s head, while Cade wrapped around Sean’s waist. Hundreds of people crowded around, taking pictures and videos.
Police soon arrived and turned the crowds away. The brothers, all aiming for a return to the biennial World Age Group Competition in April, went on their way, too.
“We’ll do a skill, and they’ll clap,” Cade, 14, said. “They’ll just keep watching, so we’ll do another one. So we’ll just keep doing more and more and then more and more people come and all of the sudden, there’s so many people we can’t count.”
The route to the Shields brothers becoming that accidental international circus attraction started when Cade was 6 and wouldn’t stop doing cartwheels around the Shieldses’ Columbia house.
The family didn’t have an acrobatics or gymnastics background, but their mom, Lauren, brought him to Emilia’s. A year later, Sean, now 18, and Grant, 16, enrolled, too.
Lauren used to watch every practice and admire the gym’s elite-level members.
“They’re never going to do that,” she’d think to herself. “There’s no way.”
But Daniil Kostovetskiy, the owner and head coach at Emilia’s, recognized their potential. He assured Lauren the boys would improve with an incremental training plan, emphasizing strength and flexibility.
Soon, the boys were climbing the rope hanging from the gym’s ceiling without using their feet, could perform stunts and tumbling moves Lauren had watched the more advanced acrobatic gymnasts do, and practiced so often she didn’t have time to watch each session.
During the school year, they’re in the gym for three to four hours, six days a week. And they often have two-a-day workouts in the summer.
“The kids start listening, and we start with low-level easy skills to build body, to build flexibility and everything,” Kostovetskiy said. “We start competing and kids show really good progress.”
About five years later, that improvement sent the Shieldses to Putian.
Grant and Sean had made the U.S. junior national team and competed in a men’s group for the 12-18 age group.
With Lauren, and their dad, Skip, watching nervously in the stands — Cade was there, too, but felt more admiration than anxiety — they earned third place.
Afterward, Kostovetskiy told Lauren the foursome’s medal was the first any U.S. male acrobatics group earned at the world level. She didn’t believe him until confirming it with a USA Gymnastics official.
“You tasted your bronze medal,” Kostovetskiy told the boys after the competition. “Now you know it’s possible.”
So, the three brothers are all preparing for the April event in Antwerp, Belgium.
At the 2017 USA Gymnastics Championships from June 27 to July 2 in Milwaukee, Cade’s troupe won its 11-16 age group, while Sean, Grant and their partners, Sean Butehorn and Daniel Disman, earned gold in the 12-18 age group to make the junior national team.
That allows the brothers to continue attending national team training camps. There, they start each morning around 6:30 a.m. — aiming to be the first ones to breakfast for the best granola bars — and have two practices that span the rest of the day.
The communal training with the nation’s other top acrobats ensures that the boys’ routines meet expectations.
Sean and Grant competed in mid-October at the Pan American Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla., where their national team 12-18 division men’s group brought home a gold medal for Team USA. Cade’s national team 11-16 division men’s group won gold at the Zwinger International Acro Cup in Dresden, Germany, on Dec. 9-10.
The U.S. team trials are scheduled for Feb. 1-4 at a site to be determined. A strong showing there would punch their ticket for a return to the world stage —and a chance to do more park tricks.
“It definitely happened a lot quicker than anyone expected,” Sean said. “Our first year, our coach promised us, ‘You’re going to go to the world championships, and you’re doing to compete there.’ We thought it was crazy. We laughed at him. Two years later, we got there, and we were like, ‘Oh, wow, we did it.’ It was just kind of amazing.”