You’d never find this place on your own. Not a chance. Forget about your maps and your street signs and your downloaded directions. Leave your Garmin and your Blackberry at home. Don’t bother with the dashboard GPS upgrade at the car rental counter. You may as well save your money. This kid’s living situation is called “off-the-grid” for a reason.
Casper Kitrov meets you at the turnoff from the highway because he has to— it’s the only way you’ll find his house. But also because he wants to; he doesn’t get many visitors out this way and he likes to greet them in person if they come. When you reach the place in the road where the cracked asphalt turns to rutted gravel, Casper is waiting there with his rusty 10-speed bicycle leaning against an equally rusted post that looks as if it might have once held a stop sign. The sign is long gone, as is the need for it. There’s no traffic at this intersection.
As you slow the car to a crawl, Casper looks up and gives a shy wave; even from a distance you can see the physicality of his build, the compact strength and sinewy muscles in his arm. After an exchange of greetings and some small talk about the difficulties of finding his house, Casper leans through the driver-side window and tries to provide directions for the remainder of the trip. You’re three-quarters of a mile from his house, and it still sounds confusing. He attempts in vain to describe the difference between the oak tree where you turn right, and the maple that signifies the left, and then agrees to just climb in the car and point the way. His 10-speed is left leaning against the rusting metal pole. No lock. No chain or other means of securing it to the post. Like the former stop sign, it’s completely unnecessary out here.
After a series of turns at deciduous trees which all look the same, you arrive at the Kitrov family’s modest two-story clapboard home. Casper doesn’t walk up the dirt drive to the front door on his hands. That will come later.
The term “off-the-grid” refers to individuals or families who choose to live in a self-sufficient manner without relying on municipal water supplies, sewer service, natural gas or local electrical power. They typically have no telephone service or other means of staying “connected,” like cell phones or internet. The idea is to be largely autonomous and independent of traditional public services. An April 2006 story in USA Today reported “some 180,000 families living off-grid, a figure that has jumped 33% a year for a decade." The Kitrov family of New York is one of those families.
Residing in a small weathered house near the town of Slaterville Springs, NY—Population: 180—the Kitrov’s live an insular life on a tiny tract of land which Casper’s father affectionately calls “New Sevastopol”—Population: 3. Old Sevastopol is one of the larger seaports in the Ukrainian republic, a rough harbor city where Casper’s father, Dmitry Kitrov, grew up and developed into a promising gymnast under the former Soviet regime in the early 1980s. There, he met and fell in love with Casper’s mother, Catherine, a young American woman teaching English and serving at a Ukrainian orphanage as part of a missionary commitment. When Catherine returned to the United States in 1987, she promised to help Dmitry defect to the US if he could manage to reach American shores. They weren’t sure if that would ever happen.
Finally, in February 1989, not long before the collapse of the Soviet Union, an international gymnastics competition in New York City offered the window of opportunity the two had been awaiting. Dmitry, faking an injury, slipped away from the team hotel the night before his team was due to compete. Catherine, by now living and working at an organic farm near Ithaca, New York, picked up her suitor at a nearby subway station and the two fled into the night. They’ve been living off-the-grid ever since.
Two years after their 1989 marriage in a small civil ceremony in upstate New York, Casper was born.
Casper wasn’t supposed to be watching TV at the drug store that afternoon three years ago. Homeschooled since the age of four by his mother in a house with several radios but no television, he was supposed to be working on his daily biology lesson at the pond behind the family’s house. Something about the declining population of indigenous frogs. What he got instead, after biking into town to purchase an eyedropper at the drug store, was a lesson in the thrilling possibilities of track and field competition. The town’s sole pharmacist happened to be parked behind the counter watching coverage of the 2005 Track and Field World Championships from Helsinki, and Casper was instantly captivated by the pole vaulters on the television. He spent the remainder of the afternoon glued to the aerial competition, then had to explain the shortage of frog data to his mother later that night.
Despite his father’s background as an Olympic-caliber gymnast and his mother’s athleticism as a former dancer, Casper had grown up largely separated from competitive possibilities. His status as a home-schooled student and his relative geographic isolation eliminated the likelihood of participation in childhood leagues and local school teams. He was coordinated, strong and quick, but directed those talents as much toward playing in the woods near his family’s home as he did any sort of organized athletic undertaking. That is, until he saw those pole vaulters on TV.
That afternoon is when Casper Kitrov found his calling.
The vaulting pole is a seventeen-footer, received by mail order from a company in Finland. At the time they placed the order, neither Casper nor his father were familiar with the nuances of sizing or weight-appropriate poles. They assumed, seeing the elites on television, that the poles were all meant to be that long. It was three months before he could even bend the pole upon planting it, but he eventually mastered the outsized equipment.
The training regime is strictly old-school, received in a thick manila envelope from a friend of his father’s in the Ukraine who coaches gymnastics at a sports academy in Kiev. There are blurry Xeroxed diagrams obtained from the academy’s track coaches, accompanied by several pages of suggestions, all handwritten in Ukrainian. Five of the pole vaulting diagrams are Scotch-taped to the walls of Casper’s bedroom, with captions like “NO FEAR” and “18-5” scrawled in marker underneath.
The workouts themselves are something to behold—think Rocky Balboa and the Siberian training scenes from Rocky IV, in which Rocky prepares for his big showdown with Ivan Drago by hauling rocks, lifting logs and sprinting up mountains in waist-deep snow. Although Casper isn’t tearing up the sides of any mountains, the rest of it isn’t far off the truth. Every day he runs windsprints along the pine needle-coated trails between his house and the nearby pond. He spends a portion of each afternoon walking on his hands to develop strength and balance, climbing stairs inside the house and weaving between saplings in the woods. Twice a week he performs a drill with a shovelful of rocks held in the same manner as a vaulting pole, with the forward-leaning weight simulating the pull of gravity on a descending seventeen-foot pole. He attempts to keep the shovel steady as he sprints up the driveway, and if even a single rock spills out, he returns and starts again. The exercise is performed only twice a week because it ravages his forearms. In the dead of winter he plunges his arms to the elbow in the pond to relieve the pain. Two days later he wraps his wrists in tape and adds more rocks.
The training facilities, when they’re available, are entered covertly—a local high school’s fenced-off track which Casper sneaks into in the early evening after the school’s official practice has ended. He tosses his pole over the fence, then scales the chainlink himself. More balance work, he says. More experience maneuvering his body in midair. Last autumn, when the pole vault pads were stowed away in a trackside shed for the season, Casper worked on his technique by planting the pole in a makeshift wooden box at the edge of the pondtrail and vaulting into the water.
His nickname—“Little Bubka”—was conferred by his mother in honor of the great Ukrainian vaulter, Sergey Bubka. Just like the mail-ordered pole, it may have been outsized at the start of this venture, but it’s starting to look like a pretty good fit now.
Finding pole vault competitions to enter when you’re a seventeen year-old homeschooled athlete living off-the-grid isn’t easy. New York Federation rules prevent home-educated students from participating in certified high school competitions. College open meets have been unwilling to accept Casper’s entry requests without an established, verifiable mark. Summer youth meets, where high school-aged athletes can compete for clubs or unattached, haven’t panned out because the local events don’t have pole vault standards high enough to accommodate Casper’s jumps. Until recently, he was unaware of national-level meets like Nike Indoor and Outdoor Nationals, but he now plans to seek entry into the outdoor event in Greensboro NC this coming June.
Last August, after persistent lobbying from his father, a small Masters-level all-comer’s meet at a high school outside Rochester allowed Casper to compete in their end-of-summer event. Although he was permitted to jump in the over-40 competition, Casper’s marks didn’t count in the results and were never officially recorded.
He cleared 17 feet, 10 inches on his first attempt.
Kent Swinyard, a local Masters athlete who has coached youth vaulters in the past and was present that evening, says the performance he witnessed was better than any he’s seen from a high school-aged athlete.
“The kid entered at 16-even,” he says, “and he just kept going. The rest of the meet was pretty much over, so we were all just standing around watching. Until I talked to his father afterwards, I honestly thought he was a college kid. It was very, very impressive.”
With night descending and no stadium lights at the track, Casper requested the bar be raised to 18 feet, 2 inches.
“It was getting awfully dark,” Swinyard says. “We’d borrowed the standards from a local college, so they should have gone high enough, but I honestly can’t say what the next height was set at. We didn’t exactly have trained officials on hand. Two guys were shining flashlights up at the bar when he jumped. He definitely cleared something over eighteen—got it on his second try—but don’t quote me on the exact height.”
Dmitry swears his son cleared 18-02.50 that night.
Casper shrugs and says, “It was over eighteen, I know that.”
Kent Swinyard says, “It was just damn impressive.”
To date, it remains the only time Casper has competed in an actual meet.
On the way back up the gravel road, Casper Kitrov can’t stop talking.
He’s asking about pole vault ranking lists and results from the two recent indoor national meets. He’s pumping you for information about the only high school seventeen-footer this year, Californian via Germany, Nico Weiler. He’s having a hard time believing there aren’t others. He wants to know when a story written about him might appear on the internet, and if he could be mailed a printout when it does. He might be able to use the internet at a library two towns over, he says, but he’d like to have it on paper to hang in his room.
He is confident and animated and anything but shy. He is curious about the world and wants to make an impact in the sport of track and field. He gives the distinct impression that he may not be as committed to this “off-the-grid” thing as his parents.
When the car stops crunching gravel and starts grabbing road again, there’s his 10-speed bicycle, still propped against the decapitated signpost. Casper jokes about wishing the bike would be stolen so he could get a new one. He laughs in a way that sounds like a snort and gets out of the car and whips the bike around with one arm and returns it to the ground. He gives a quick wave and checks one last time to make sure you know your way back to the main road. Then he climbs on his bicycle and starts weaving down the gravel road toward his house, dodging ruts the entire way.
You’ve probably never heard of him, but you will.