Mon, Feb 26, 2018 - Page 10 News List

Pyeongchang Games: The circus life beckons for some retired Olympians

Reuters, GANGNEUNG, South Korea

Now that the Olympic flame is out, life will go on for the nearly 3,000 athletes who thrilled, inspired or disappointed at the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

For some, their Olympic journey will have just begun; for others it is the end of a long, wintry road to destinations unknown.

For every Lindsey Vonn or Shaun White, who will live comfortably off their endorsements and fame long after they have put away their skis and snowboards, there are hundreds of Olympians leaving South Korea wondering: “What next?”

Some will return to school, some will move into the coaching ranks — and some will run away to join the circus.

Seventeen Olympians, from gold medal-winning synchronized swimmers to figure skaters, are working in the Cirque du Soleil, the avant-garde theatrical production company providing a stage for athletes to use the skills and talents they have spent years, even decades, honing.

The person in charge of recruiting and developing these talents is Fabrice Becker, a former Olympic gold medalist and world champion freestyle skier for France who started with Cirque as an acrobatic talent scout and is now the director of creation for one of their upcoming shows.

“Those athletes are interesting, because they’ve reached a technical level of physical and mental preparation and dedication to something that is very specific, and those skills can be translated in a complete new environment,” said Becker, who won his gold at the 1992 Albertville Olympics where freestyle ballet was a demonstration sport.

Becker confirmed that Cirque talent scouts were watching several athletes competing at the Pyeongchang Games, particularly those in new, adrenaline-fueled events such as Big Air and slopestyle.

They keep tabs on the athletes and offer a viable career once their days of chasing medals are over.

Asked if he might consider a career in the circus, Canadian ski-crosser Kevin Drury said: “Yes, probably. I grew up doing gymnastics and basically every other sport imaginable, so depending what it involved it could be cool.”

However, the circus life is not for everyone. The transition from competitor to performer can be awkward and jarring.

While the skills and discipline required to become a high-performance athlete translate nicely into show business, the single-minded focus needed to peak for one moment every four years is very different from the mindset needed for a 10-show working week.

“The main difference is when you are an athlete, you really focus on one event,” Becker said. “If it is the Olympics, you have that goal once every four years, so it is a very different mentality having to perform night after night. It is almost like if you had a competition every night or twice a night because the public are your judges.”

For Suzannah Bianco, who won a gold for the US in synchronized swimming at the 1996 Games, career options were limited after she left the pool.

A mermaid in a Florida amusement park or coaching were two options before Cirque knocked on her door offering her a chance to perform in their show “O” in Las Vegas.

“The toughest transition was the rewiring of the mind,” Bianco said. “In athletic performance it is not the same — you are looking for perfection, pushing through, the performance is the most important thing. Giving up that sense of perfection for a sense of continual progress was a big transition.”

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