Two years ago, Portugal’s Manuel Candeias and Madalena Cavilhas had barely met. Now the pair are on the verge of creating acrobatic gymnastics history having qualified as the top-ranked duo for the discipline’s Olympic debut at Buenos Aires 2018.
“We practised twice a day almost every day,” Cavilhas said of the process which pushed her and her partner up two age categories in less than 18 months.
The step up from the 11-16 age group – in which Candeias and Cavilhas claimed bronze at the 2017 European Age Group Competition – to the 13-19 category in time for this year’s World Age Group Competition (WAGC), held in Antwerp, Belgium, involved a significant increase in the complexity and difficulty of the pair’s performance.
“The work was not easy at all,” Candeias admitted. “It took five-and-a-half hours every day to improve our routines”.
As the base, Candeias had to focus in particular on developing his strength and balance, while Cavilhas was intent on becoming ever more agile and flexible. And together, the duo had to update their choreography and presentation to meet the standards expected of the world’s best young gymnasts.
For Cavilhas, such challenges are at the heart of the sport she adores.
“What I love the most in acro is the adrenaline of the competition, the ability to be always evolving, doing things that are always more difficult than the previous ones,” she said. “I also love the challenge this sport poses for me every day”.
In acrobatic gymnastics, each mixed pair must produce a balance routine, a dynamic routine and a combined routine, with all three performed to music. Judges mark the athletes in level of difficulty, artistic expression and execution.
With Cavilhas spending much of her time balancing one-handed on Candeias’ palms or even forehead, trust is a critical element of each pair’s relationship. And it is one that is often built up off as well as on the mat.
“We went to the same school together and we often, with other friends, go to the pool or to the cinema together,” Candeias explained, before Cavilhas jumped in and added, “Yeah, and we have dinner together and we have even spent a few days on summer holidays together”.
Their dedication paid dividends at the WAGC in April 2018. With just 12 quota places available, only 15-18-year-old pairs eligible for the Youth Olympic Games and everything decided during the qualification round, the pressure was firmly on. The two Cs rose to the occasion with distinction, finishing third overall, claiming the top spot for Buenos Aires 2018, with the top two pairs both ineligible for the Games.
“I loved every moment I spent there,” Cavilhas said, beaming.
Given that acrobatic gymnastics is not currently part of the Olympic programme, Buenos Aires 2018 is shaping up to be one of the defining sporting moments for both Cavilhas and Candeias. It is, predictably, something the teenager is relishing.
“My big dream was to participate in the Olympics but as acrobatics isn’t an Olympic sport I thought that I would never fulfil this dream. But sometimes life has big surprises,” she said. “And to participate in the Youth Olympic Games is a dream come true”.