You may be asking yourself, "How in the world did this woman balance on a Y-shaped rod and shoot an arrow with her toes, while bent like a pretzel?" and "Why is David Hasselhoff still on television?" Contemplating the latter question gives me the shivers, frankly, so let’s focus our attention on the Spandex-clad archer, Lilia Stepanova. There are a number of factors at work in this stunt but Lilia’s Gumby-like maneuvers basically boil down to genetics. On the extreme and improbable end, Lilia may have been born with a rare genetic defect, such as Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, that prevents her body from building adequate amounts of collagen—the tough, stringy fibers that strengthen cartilage, tendons and other kinds of connective tissue, such as bone.
Collagen is essentially the glue that holds us together. While having less of it may be handy for shooting arrows with your feet, it’s undesirable for maintaining bone, muscle and joint health. Symptoms range in severity but typically include hyper-mobile joints, thin, stretchy skin, easy bruising and scoliosis. Lilia obviously exhibits extra rubbery joints and tendons, as evidenced by the leg that bend backs at 180 degrees, the foot that rests comfortably beneath her chin and the spine that bends like a microwaved Twizzler.
Aside from that, though, our 19-year-old Moldavian (she’s Eastern European but lives in L.A., in case you were wondering) appears to be in exceptional shape. According to her MySpace page, Lilia enjoys a fulltime career as a contortionist and dancer, which suggests that she is endowed with a milder, less harmful genetic quirk that gives her soft, pliable muscles (notice the lack of bulk or tone) yet spares her the nastier side effects associated with more severe forms of hypermobility, such as chronic pain.
Beyond the bendiness displayed by Ms. Stepanova, there are also two other factors at play: balance and coordination. The former requires both skill and a trick of physics called “center of mass” (discussed here, in a prior "Breakdown" post). By engaging a series of muscles in her arms, abdomen, back and thighs, she is able to stack her body weight neatly over the point of the rod she’s balancing on. From there, proprioception takes over to allow her to maintain balance and shoot a perfect bullseye.
Proprio-huh? The word “proprioception” refers to a cluster of nervous-system functions that help the body to understand spatial relationships and coordinate the movements of muscles accordingly, whether—in this case— for imperceptibly shifting to maintain her crazy handstand, or for zeroing in on an archery target. Some people are gifted with better proprioception than others (Tiger Woods’s must be fine-tuned to allow him to play golf so well), but it’s possible to sharpen your proprioceptive sense with exercises like juggling, balancing on a wobble board, or practicing yoga.
If you’re looking to impress David Hasselhoff with a stunt like Lilia’s, don’t lose hope: she wasn’t born an expert foot archer. Genetic advantages or no, developing her levels of flexibility, balance and aim no doubt required intense practice. And a fishnet half-shirt. —Nicole Dyer
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.