To pay the rent between competing in three consecutive Olympics, Karen Cockburn has lugged her trampoline to black-tie galas and plowing competitions. As a trampolinist-for-hire she has bounced in skis, wigs, a superhero cape and a granny costume. Then came the McDonald’s commercial where she shot out of a giant paper bag.
So when the three-time Olympic medalist sat riveted by a recent performance of Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna, running off with the circus seemed like a tantalizing career option when she retires in the next few years.
“If there was a Cirque show permanently in Toronto, I would be like, sign me up,” says Cockburn, 32, who lives in Toronto.
Growing numbers of Olympians are doing just that. Over the past decade, the Montreal-based company known for spectacular blends of acrobatics and theatre has established itself as a legitimate employment opportunity for world-class athletes – especially gymnasts, divers, and synchronized swimmers – whose bodies no longer allow competition. It’s one of the rare employers seeking applicants who are exceptionally good at pointing their toes, flipping through the air, and holding their breath.
“I believe that Cirque has become a springboard now for Olympic athletes to have a second breath when their career is over,” said 1992 Olympic gold medalist Sylvie Fréchette, who worked for eight years as a performer and choreographer with Cirque’s “O” show in Las Vegas. “Before, that was impossible. But right now, for divers and synchronized swimmers especially, there is actually a small opening for us where we can pursue our passion at a different level.”
Approximately 50 current and former Cirque performers have competed at the Olympics, including nine from Canada. Of the 1,300 Cirque performers worldwide, about 40 per cent are former elite athletes who have moved on after competing for national or collegiate teams.
Cirque isn’t waiting for the athletes to wander into the big top. They have forged relationships with sports governing bodies such as Gymnastics Canada by providing small bursaries to top athletes, and given free choreography advice to Synchro Canada. And although Cirque’s policy is never to cut short a sports career, talent scouts show up at national and world championships, even ESPN’s X Games, to answer questions from curious athletes who are considering retirement.
“It would not suit everyone, but you’re of the adventurous spirit, and not interested in punching in at 9 a.m., there are a ton of terrific rewards,” said Stacy Clark, an acrobatic coach and former talent scout with the 28-year-old company, which has an annual revenue of close to $1-billion (U.S.).
British trampolinist Claire Wright leaped into a four-year career in Cirque two weeks after finishing 10th at the Beijing Olympics. “I was ready to retire from sport and I still wanted to carry on performing,” Wright said. So when a Cirque scout called after the Games, she packed her bags and flew to Cirque’s training centre in Montreal.
Every athlete who reaches Montreal has the technical chops to make it, but Cirque wants to know if they can perform. During auditions, athletes are asked to dance, clown, act – even sing. They might have to pretend to be an Ostrich. Or dance solo to a Lady Gaga song. Or create a skit to using a paper tube as a prop.
The results can be awkward. (“Terrible,” Clark says.)
Frechette found Cirque’s world “scary” at first.
“To me, everybody was intimidating, because they were all artists and I was only an Olympian. I didn’t know the vocabulary. I did not know where to start from,” she said.
Even the pool – a place she’s spent up to 60 hours a week as an athlete – was now a foreign, bizarre shaped place filled with bubbles, colours and muffled sounds.
“As synchronized swimmers, we know the pool, there’s lines on the bottom. But now, nothing was straight, or square or rectangular. It’s a whole new level of choreography under the water. And the safety and lights and scuba divers. It’s a whole new arena.”
But many athletes also feel liberated leaving the rigidity of competitive sport behind.
“When you’re on a stage in front of 25,000 people at the Olympics, you don’t actually notice anyone but the judges,” says Wright, who performs in La Nouba at Walt Disney World Resort. “I love that on stage, something’s always changing, and you get to really put a little more flair into what you’re doing. It changes every day. Whereas in sport, you really don’t want it to change at all.”