Why some athletes take talents to Disney on Ice, Cirque du Soleil

Competitive figure skaters from around the world have gone on to perform in Disney on Ice shows. Courtesy Feld Entertainment

Alexandra Young has been skating since she was just 2 years old. She competed for years on a pairs team with her older brother, Matthew, winning a silver medal in the novice division of the 2010 Canadian national championships. A goal was to skate in the Olympics one day.

"Of course," she said. "It's every athlete's dream to go to the Olympics."

Young never achieved that goal and retired from competition three years ago. She is still skating though, and with a partner, Eric Palin. Rather than being picked apart by stern judges looking for every tiny mistake, the two are costumed as Barbie and Ken and performing wonderful spins, twists, jumps and lifts in front of joyful, adoring fans in a traveling Disney on Ice production.

"We do lots of fun tricks out there," Young said. "Ken picks me up a couple times. We have so much fun together. Coming from a pairs skating background in my competitive life, it was a dream to me to transition from competition skating right to the show. ... I loved Barbie dolls as a little girl, and I was so excited that I was going to get the opportunity to play the role of Barbie."

Young and Palin are among many competitive skaters from all over the world -- ranging from the U.S. and Canada to Russia, Ukraine and Spain -- who have used their well-honed athletic skills to transition into the entertainment field. And it isn't only skaters who make such a move.

Competitive gymnasts, synchronized swimmers and divers have been finding second careers in Cirque du Soleil's extravagant international circus shows. There are 20 former Olympians currently performing in Cirque du Soleil productions -- eight in the Las Vegas production of "O" alone -- and many more have done so over the years. The company recruits the athletes via the Internet and by scouting at competitive events.

"The Olympic level in gymnastics is the best because your technique has to be perfect, your execution has to be perfect, your mental strategy has to be perfect, your physicality must be perfect," said American Elise Ray, an Olympic bronze medalist and former Cirque du Soleil performer. "And Cirque is the best of the best in the performing world."

INSPIRED BY British gold medalists Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Kira Geil got into skating as a child and competed in ice dancing for years. She was born in Wales but relocated to Austria, where she won multiple national titles. She competed in the world championships twice but never reached the Olympics. After retiring from competitive skating in 2014, Geil coached for a while, until fellow skaters encouraged her to try Disney on Ice.

She currently performs in the "Worlds of Enchantment" touring show as a background cast member in the "Frozen," "Little Mermaid" and "Toy Story 3" segments.

"It's fun, actually. ... In relation to competition, it doesn't feel so restrictive," she said. "When I competed, it was, 'I have this to do and do it this way, and it has to be exact.' And [in shows] I feel I can have fun with what I do -- or more fun in shows than in competition."

While performing has an element of fun, that doesn't mean it isn't demanding.

Ray auditioned for Cirque du Soleil after winning a bronze medal in the women's team all-around at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and competing for the University of Michigan. She went through two four-month training trials at Cirque's Montreal headquarters before earning a spot in the "O" show in Las Vegas and later the Beatles-themed "Love" production.

"I was very new in the circus world, even though I was best at what I was doing in my discipline in gymnastics," said Ray, who is now the gymnastics coach at the University of Washington. "When I got to the circus world, oh man, I was the new kid on the block. So much to learn and a completely different world. ... It was the time of my life. That work was some of my favorite work I've ever done."

It took Ray a month of training to master one particular move: doing a flip after being tossed in the air by a trapeze artist and then grabbing his hands again.

"It was very tough to learn because the technique is very different from gymnastics," she said. "It was very challenging. There is a huge learning curve, but it was so fun and so challenging to learn something brand-new."

For Ray, competing at the Olympics was "just terrifying" because there was so much pressure.

"It was just hard, very hard," she said. "But performing in front of an audience is so fun. It's so invigorating. We would do 10 shows a week, two shows a night. And so that's a lot. And you do the same show every night.

"People would say, 'Don't you get bored doing it over and over? How do stay up for it?' But as soon as you step on the stage -- instant energy! The audience enlivens you. Some of the best feelings are being out there on a stage performing in front of a big audience. It just felt good in my soul."

Jenna Randall isn't a gymnast, but she also made the leap from the Olympics to "O." Randall was a synchronized swimmer for Great Britain in the 2008 and 2012 Games before joining Cirque. She originally planned to perform for only a couple years, but she has enjoyed it so much that she now aims to stay with the show as long as her body allows.

"It's a great platform to expand your creativity in your sport and learn lots of different things and get to know lots of different people from all over the world with different experiences," she said. "It's a really cool, fun place to work. And it's just amazing that I can call this work."

PERFORMING TWO TO THREE shows a day before a live audience filled with costumed children and excited parents is a change from skating or vaulting in front of judges who are scrutinizing every move you make.

"When you're competing, the judges don't wish for you to do errors, but they're looking for them. And the small errors can be absolutely costly in competition," Geil said. "You do a small error here, and nobody really notices. And that's where the pressure is off you. I like it. Not that I didn't enjoy competition, but there is just that ease of presentation here."

The differences go beyond the stress of being judged, "Worlds of Enchantment" performance director and former competitive skater Brian Santiago says.

"Competing is very taxing on your body, very physically and mentally demanding," he said. "Coming into the show, you don't have to skate yourself into the ground like a competitive skater."

Randall says she didn't really notice the crowd when she was competing at the Olympics because she was so focused on doing her routine as perfectly as possible. The Cirque experience is much different.

"There's a more intimate connection you have with the audience," she said. "You're really trying to draw them into this world that you're trying to create and have them enjoy the experience. There are moments when you are super close to the audience and able to look at them and play with them a little bit. It's more exciting and intimate."

Part of the excitement is the costumes. While competitive skaters often wear flashy garb, it's designed with ease of performance in mind. That isn't always the case for the Disney on Ice cast.

"When you make the costumes for a competitive athlete, it's always like, 'How can we improve the costume to make you feel comfortable and make sure nothing is in the way?'" Young said. "Whereas here, the costumes are designed to make the character look exactly as it does in the movie so the character looks authentic.

"There are so many different costumes. Sometimes they are a little longer or you have a big skirt, but we all adapt really well, and I think once you get used to the costume, you don't even know it's there anymore."

When asked what it must be like to skate in a more complicated costume, such as Olaf the Snowman, Young is less forthcoming.

"Olaf is Olaf," she said. "He comes, and he skates with us. He's made of snow, and he's got a big carrot nose, and he's got some branches for arms."

AS FUN AS SUCH a career can be, there are risks, just as there are in athletic competition. Three-time Australian Olympic gymnast Lisa Skinner had been with Cirque du Soleil for nearly a decade when she fell during a performance this past November and fractured a C1 vertebrae. She reportedly is recovering well and is in good spirits.

"It's dangerous work," Ray said. "You're doing a lot of aerial acrobatics."

Ray fell into the water a couple times during performances, but the only significant injury she suffered was a sprained ankle while she and the rest of the "O" cast were moving among the audience.

Nonetheless, Ray thoroughly enjoyed her three years performing and tells her Washington gymnasts to consider a career with Cirque du Soleil.

"Especially if I see in them that little performance bug -- oh God, I recommend them," she said. "I tell them, 'Make a video. See what happens. Go live in Montreal for couple months.' I try to encourage them all to get into it. ... It's so cool. It's such a nice transition out of our sport."

Winning an Olympic medal and competing for your country are precious, but performing in Cirque du Soleil or Disney on Ice certainly can be more fun than sitting nervously in the "kiss and cry" zone, worrying the judges are about to give you a terrible score.

For Geil, the response from "Worlds of Enchantment" audiences has been, well, enchanting.

"Particularly when they sing along," she said. "It's these moments that stand out to me. I will stand backstage and listen to the crowd. I love these moments. The other skaters always laugh at me. 'What are you doing? You don't need to be here?' I'm just listening to the crowd. It's these moments that stand out the most for me.

"It's fantastic. There's just one big smile."