One moment, 11-year-old Savannah Cecchini can be a human sculpture, contorting her tiny 60-pound frame into a crescent held 8 feet high by her partner, 21-year-old Lacey Rivette.
In the next instant, she can stand on Rivette’s up-stretched hands to flip and twist to the ground.
Cecchini and Rivette are standouts in acrobatic gymnastics, working constantly to create a relationship where they know one another’s minds.
“There’s no other sport where you have this connection,” says Rivette.
Acrobatic gymnastics, or acro, as the participants call it, demands the athletes use only their bodies — no balance beam, bars or rings — to perform. They compete in pairs, trios and groups of four, using one another as jungle gyms to create human sculpture or flip down to the floor.
Cecchini and Rivette won the pairs competition at the 2013 USA Gymnastics National Championships at level 8, three below the top level, called elite, where they soon hope to be taking medals.
Their routines are orchestrated movements of grace, with Cecchini climbing Rivette, stair-stepping up her hip, back and shoulder to begin their movements.
The goal is for Cecchini to move like she is “stepping on glass,” says Michelle Lavergne who owns Leaps & Bounds Sports Center in Denham Springs, where the pair practices.
“You get up close and personal in acro,” says Lavergne.
Rivette acts as a “base,” the more muscular foundation for Cecchini, who is a “top,” usually a younger, lighter, extremely flexible athlete.
Acrobatic gymnastics is “more forgiving for different body types” than the artistic gymnastics seen in the Summer Olympics, says Lavergne, who competed at the elite level of acro.
“In acrobatic gymnastics they’re looking for bigger bases,” she says. “All these athletes train hard and are athletic, but you can have different shapes and body types.”
Rivette, a student at LSU, has competed in acro for seven years. She has made it to nationals four times and won twice. She quit the sport for a year when she was diagnosed with a stress fracture of her L5 vertebrae but chose to return and perform with Cecchini a little more than two years ago.
The duo practices a dozen hours a week and increase their gym time in the summer with two-a-day sessions to prepare for competitions. Right now, the pair is laying off competition for one year to practice to compete at the elite level.
Their coach is Kiril Kirov, a veteran of the sport who won a silver medal for Bulgaria at the first acrobatic gymnastics world championships in 1974. He teaches them and a dozen young gymnasts who look up to Cecchini and Rivette.
“This is the best for a coach, to find good athletes, talented kids like them,” says Kirov, who came to Denham Springs in 2008. “It’s not just work.”
Kirov thinks Cecchini and Rivette can compete at the international level soon.
“It takes time, too,” he says. “For this level, they came after three years practicing, but for the international level, they need a little bit more, maybe one year or more.”
To reach the expertise of the elites, Rivette and Cecchini know they must synchronize their movements and trust one another completely.
“I know what she’s doing before she does it,” explains Rivette.
While she had taken gymnastics throughout her young life, Cecchini couldn’t do splits three years ago. Then she discovered acro.
She practices at home on the couch or on picnic tables, constantly contorting her body and tumbling.
“She’s tenacious,” says her mother, Sonia Cecchini. “She’s not a natural anything. She’s worked at it.”
Last year Cecchini broke her foot tumbling at home, yet her mother does not worry about her during their routines.
“I trust Lacey completely,” she says of her daughter’s older, more experienced partner. “They never do anything until they are really ready.”
To become ready, they practice in the safety of the gym. When trying a new move, Cecchini straps into a harness suspended by wires from the ceiling.
“It’s hard, but it’s really fun,” Cecchini says. “I love it.”