Up in the Air

How two teenage prodigies came to America and stepped right into a battle over the future of juggling.

  1. The world record for two people juggling 10 clubs between them is 378 catches. It is currently held by two Russian siblings living in the U.S. named Vova and Olga Galchenko. The Galchenkos also hold the world record for 11 clubs (152 catches) and 12 clubs (54 catches). The ability to juggle at this level is highly unusual, especially at their ages—Vova is 18, Olga 15. But then again, the Galchenkos are very unusual people.

    Vova (short for Vladimir) is shaggy haired and soft spoken. Olga has big eyes and a big smile and is a little hyperactive—she sometimes breaks into a soft-shoe dance routine to keep herself entertained. They're an unlikely duo to be at the center of a controversy that has divided the passionate, arcane and exclusive community of high-level professional juggling, the kind most people rarely see outside of Cirque du Soleil.

    Growing up poor in the small industrial city of Penza, about 400 miles outside Moscow, Vova and Olga started juggling for fun in an after-school program. Pretty soon it got to be more than a hobby. The Galchenkos are easygoing and tons of fun to be around, but when it's time to work, something shifts behind their eyes and they get weirdly intense and laser-focused. "They have personalities that are very, very unpleasantly obsessive," says magician and juggler Penn Jillette (he means that with nothing but affection). "When I was around them practicing, they would do stuff that no one had ever done and then say, 'That sucks.'"

    The obsessi...

Originally published in Time, July 2006