Hours after his bid to qualify for a second straight Olympics ended with a disappointing showing at the 1996 British trials, gymnast Paul Bowler drove home to Manchester with tears streaming down his cheeks.
At 28 years old, Bowler knew his last realistic chance to compete at another Olympics had slipped away. As a result, he faced the terrifying task of figuring out what to do with his post-gymnastics life.
"I thought life was over," Bowler said. "Generally as a gymnast, your career finishes, you almost have a nervous breakdown and then you go sit in the corner of a gym and teach children the rest of your life until you start breathing in magnesium. I didn't want to do that. I love coaching, but I really like to be out there out front where you can affect your own destiny."
What saved Bowler from decades of teaching toddlers how to tumble was an invitation to audition for Cirque du Soleil in late 1996. He outclassed his peers with his acrobatic skills and showed enough acting promise to land a job as an aerial performer, allowing him to join the growing ranks of ex-Olympians who go to work for Cirque Du Soleil once they're no longer able to compete at a world-class level.
About 40 percent of Cirque du Soleil's 1,300 performers are former athletes who typically have backgrounds in gymnastics, trampolining, synchronized swimming and diving. Some 50 current and former Cirque performers have competed at the Olympics, including stars of the 2008 Games such as Australian trampolinist Ben Wilden and bronze medal-winning American gymnast Raj Bhavsar.
[Photos: Crazy contortions of rhythmic gymnasts]
Working for Cirque du Soleil appeals to ex-Olympians because it's one of the few ways they can use the skills required for their sports to make a living once their competitive careers are over. And Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil is more than happy to oblige since the skills of the ex-athletes often fit seamlessly into the company's approach of blending traditional acrobatic acts with Vegas-style theater.
"There's definitely a lot of skills athletes use in their day-to-day training that correspond to our stage," said Marceline Goldstein, an accomplished Canadian trampolinist who now serves as a senior talent scout for Cirque du Soleil. "There's a certain acrobatic level that any artist or athlete has to have to come and do one of our acrobatic acts on stage. Beyond that, it's really the passion and desire to learn we're looking for."
To find athletes capable of appearing in one of Cirque du Soleil's numerous shows, talent scouts like Goldstein recruit at world-class competitions and stay in touch with contacts in their former sports. They pursue athletes they believe will be a good fit, yet they're careful to be conscious of concerns from coaches or federations wary of losing top athletes in their prime.
Scouts at Cirque du Soleil typically aren't looking for superstar Olympians such as Michael Phelps or Gabrielle Douglas. Instead, they seek out lesser-known elite athletes with the proper blend of acrobatic skill, charisma and stage presence.
At auditions, athletes typically must prove they're more than just robots who can tumble. Casting directors typically have some odd requests, from climbing a rope while belting out a song to making monkey noises on command.
When Bowler auditioned for Cirque du Soleil, the casting director instructed him to charm a middle-aged Italian man who spoke no English.
"I walked in front of him really slowly, looked him in the eyes and did a lot of really high somersaults while keeping eye contact with him," Bowler said. "I tried to show him something he had never seen before. I don't know if that was the right thing to do, but I got the job."
Athletes who Cirque du Soleil hires typically spend their first few months completing a training program that is essentially a boot camp for circus hopefuls. They work with an acting coach. They take improvisational comedy lessons. They enroll in dance classes. They do everything possible to improve their stage presence and ease the transition from competitive athlete to circus performer.
[Photos: Odd day jobs of Olympians]
Performers take the stage 10 times a week and train 10-15 hours a week on top of that. Salaries vary widely, but those performers with the most unusual acrobatic talents can earn as much as several hundred thousand dollars per year.
Bowler estimates he has done the aerial cube act in about 6,000 Cirque du Soleil shows in the past 15 years. The 44-year-old Las Vegas resident hopes his body holds up long enough for him to perform for at least another five years.
"Cirque du Soleil has turned me from a gymnast with a cube into an artist," Bowler said. "It took a few years, but that has been the end result."
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