How the circus brought a family from the former Czechoslovakia to the U.S. aerials team
Confirmed U.S. athletes competing at the Visa International SKi World Cup
- Brad Wilson
- Troy Murphy
- Dylan Walczyak
- Troy Tully
- Emerson Smith
- Bryon Wilson
- Jack Kariotis
- Casey Andringa
- Joal Hedrick
- Jaelin Kauf
- Keaton McCargo
- Morgan Schild
- Nessa Dziemian
- Oliva Giacco
- Mikaela Matthews
- Tess Johnson
- KC Oakley
- Avital Shimko
- Ashley Caldwell
- Kiley McKinnon
- Madison Olsen
- Morgan Northrop
- Winter Vinicki
- Mac Bohonnon
- Alex Bowen
- Eric Loughan
- Zach Surdell
- Nik Seemann
- Nick Novak
At the North American Cup competitions at the Utah Olympic Park last month, Nick Novak, 21, had a mixed showing. He was fairly sure he dislocated his jaw on the first day of competition – X-rays showed it wasn’t broken. After falling on the second day, he was wondering if he would get a chance to travel with the U.S. Aerials team to Moscow. Only a few athletes would be selected to go, and it would be a significant stop for a competitor of his caliber.
But he said what he really hoped was that someday he would get to compete in the Czech Republic, where his family is from.
“They don’t hold the events at the moment, but hopefully sometime soon we will get an event there, because it’s one of my favorite places in the world,” he said.
Of course, it’s changed a lot in the last few decades. The open political atmosphere and romantic ambiance of Prague was not always so cheerful, as Jaroslav Novak, Nick’s father, knows all too well. Under Soviet control, Jaroslav, better known as Jari, said the former Czechoslovakia was much different than it is now.
He found communist ideology stifling, and time in the army, which was mandatory for citizens, was marked by hazing. He didn’t want his children to grow up there.
The last straw was when, as a world-class trampoline gymnasts, Jari traveled with the Czechoslovakian team to the Gymnastics World Championships in Switzerland, but was told neither his team nor the Germans or Russians would compete, as part of a political move against South Africa.
“Then I said we want to compete, and they said it would be about two years in jail when you go back,” he said. “We were crying, but not competing. At least we were there.”
In the early 1980s, the Novaks – Jari, his wife used their skills as trampoline gymnasts to join the circus.
“It was a classic circus with elephants and lions, not the cirque du solei,” Jari said.
They performed off the Russian Swing, which is like a giant playground swing with a platform instead of a seat. Using the momentum of the swing, acrobats flip in huge arcs onto pads and props.
It was all a cover. The Novaks, including their 1-year-old son, Lukas, would travel with the circus, biding their time until they could escape communism and move to a country with better opportunities for their children.
They traveled with about nine families, including their children, performing shows throughout Europe.
“We were really good at the time, so it was no problem,” Jari said. “The group got a contract to work in France. We traveled through France for five or six months, then we got one more contract in Portugal and after that, on the way back home, we disappeared in France.”
They took their son and some belongings and boarded a train to Switzerland in the middle of the night.
“We just disappeared,” he said. “(The owners of the circus) tried to find us, but they never could. My father-in-law went to their house to pick up some stuff, like a sewing machine — very expensive in Czechoslovakia — he knew they were kind of (angry) but nothing dramatic.”
Jari said, had he been a high-level functionary, it would have been a different story, but being gymnasts, there was no lasting retribution against his family.
“My father (a mechanical engineer) lost his job when I left, but they actually hired him again because they couldn’t do it without him,” Jari said.
From France, the Novaks crossed into Germany, where they found an organization that was helping Czechoslovakian refugees immigrate to America.
After 10 months in Germany, the Novaks boarded a plane to Boston.
Jari quickly found work as a gymnastics instructor, and worked in Boston, then Australia for a while before the family settled in Virginia, where the Novaks opened a gym of their own.
Things took another unexpected turn in 2011 when a student said he wanted to quit, and Jari recommended he try aerial skiing before giving up. The student applied for, and was accepted into, a tryout for the U.S. development team in Lake Placid, New York. Jari and several gymnasts accompanied him to the tryout, then helped run the trampoline while there.
“We spent two weeks in the Olympic Training Center,” Jari said. “I was helping the coach, my guys were helping run the trampoline and they were in good shape because (they had just come from the) World Junior Championships. They got immediately offered to join the program, and I get offered position of assistant coach.”
Jari accepted and remains a coach for the development team in New York. Nick joined as an athlete.
Even so, looking back now, Jari said if he had known there would be a peaceful revolution in his homeland, he probably wouldn’t have left. All their extended family still lives in the Czech Republic, and the Novaks go back a couple times a year to visit. In the early 1990s, they were given citizenship back into their homeland.
Jari said he is not one that spends much time reflecting.
“It wasn’t boring,” Jari said. “It wasn’t perfect. I always tell my wife that perfect people are boring. It was fun, kind of.”
On Friday, Nick will compete in the Deer Valley Visa International Ski World Cup.
Word is still out on a competition in the Czech Republic, but Jari said he is glad at least that his children have gotten the opportunities they have.
“America has bigger opportunities in all kinds of things,” he said. “Hopefully, we stay this way.”
Editor’s note: Some language for clarity on the Czech Republic versus the Czechoslovakia has been added.
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