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."
Cockburn, won bronze in Sydney, silver in Athens and a silver in Beijing, relished that freedom in 2009, when she took a two-week contract to help Cirque choreographers come up with new choreography for a show in development. Instead of bouncing straight up and down, she was running vertically up walls, bouncing in and out of boxes. "It was so amazing," she said.
Cirque scouts explicitly do not go after big stars such as American gymnast Gabrielle Douglas, since the company needs performers who can blend into a show without hogging the limelight. (Those athletes also tend to find plenty of endorsement deals on their own.)
"I don't think Michael Phelps will be reaching out to us," laughed Marceline Goldstein, Cirque's senior acrobatic talent scout.
Fréchette says the anonymity takes getting used to. "It's so different at the Olympics. You're the centre of attraction. You want people to know your name. But at the "O" show, even my own mother couldn't recognize me. You actually have to understand that if someone can recognize you, you're not doing the job properly."
Once an athlete is hired for a show, their new routine can be just as gruelling as competition. Cirque performers do up to 10 shows a week, plus an average of 12 hours per week of training on top of that. A rookie performer's salary starts at $50,000 a year. Many have a permanent home base in places such as Orlando or Las Vegas. But for touring shows such as Amaluna, which is currently in Toronto, performers live in hotels or condo apartments, moving every few weeks.
Brittany Urbain, a 25-year-old gymnast from Edmonton, joined Amaluna last spring as part of a six-member act on the high bars. Urbain is one of many collegiate athletes who turned to Cirque after graduation, looking for travel and adventure, and not quite ready to give up on life in the gym.
Urbain met her husband, Reid, when they were both NCAA gymnasts at the University of Iowa. He's also with Cirque, but assigned to a different show. The time apart is difficult, but worth the sacrifice, Urbain says, because she has dreamed of joining Cirque ever since she saw a show as a girl.
"When you're putting on your costume and makeup, it's like, oh my gosh, I'm getting ready for work."
Cockburn says her days of joining the circus are likely behind her. Her near future may hold one more Olympics, or children. Her husband, a former competitive trampolinist, has a chiropractic practice rooted in Toronto. She says she's lucky that her sport, while obscure, has avenues for making money. She is developing her own performance company, Soaring Heights Productions, which puts on trampoline shows at corporate and community events.
But in another lifetime? "I would definitely jump on that," she says of Cirque.
CANADIAN OLYMPIANS WHO HAVE WORKED ON CIRQUE DU SOLEIL PRODUCTIONS:
Émilie Fournier – gymnastics
Grant Golding – gymnastics
Julie Beaulieu – gymnastics
Lesley Wright – synchronized swimming (Olympic bronze medalist, 2000)
Philippe Chartrand – gymnastics
Reidun Tatham – sychronized swimming (Olympic bronze medalist, 2000)
Stella Umeh – gymnastics
Sylvie Fréchette – synchronized swimming (Olympic gold medalist, 1992)
Yvonne Tousek – gymnastics
PUTTING TRAINING TO USE
So how does a Cirque performer put their sports training to good use? Here are some examples:
In Cirque's "O" production, divers flip and twist from heights of up to 18 metres into small areas of open water. Adjusting to the height and spacing of the landing can be a huge mental leap for athletes. The highest dives attempted by Olympic athlete are from the 10-metre platform – approximately half the height of the tallest dive in "O." Performers also leap from all sorts of objects, including a barge and a Russian swing.
In Amaluna, Cirque's newest production, male gymnasts trampolinists launch each other six feet in the air on a teeter board, a gymnast's version of a teeter-totter. Female gymnasts rule the uneven bars. Unlike in Olympic competition, where two horizontal bars are set at differing heights, the Amaluna apparatus has four bars (two tall and two shorter), so gymnasts flip from bar to bar to bar to bar, sometimes six athletes at the same time.
Synchronized swimmers perform in two permanent Las Vegas shows: Cirque's long-standing, "O" production, as well as "Le Rêve," created by Franco Dragone. Athletes must learn to express emotions like happiness and sadness with every part of their body – even their feet. They must also swim in awkward costumes including red high heels and wigs with three-foot long hair. Coaches and athletes have credited the Las Vegas shows for influencing the new direction of the sport to include more daring acrobatic moves.