For most at the age of 6, tumbling equipment means free-spirited play time, a total escape from the structured world of bedtime and timeout.
For Melissa Fernandez, born in Honduras and raised in Eudora, it was the age she began on the path to pursuing precision and the perfect score in gymnastics. That pursuit culminated in a fifth-place finish in the all-around competition and a tie for fifth in the balance beam at the NCAA nationals in Cleveland in April.
While competing at the University of Illinois, Fernandez three times earned All-American honors. The years and years of workouts resulted in extraordinary achievement.
Now, when she steps into a gym, she enters the fantasy world of a small child.
“I’m done competing in gymnastics, which is kind of nice,” Fernandez said. “I can finally just go into the gym and play on the equipment. It’s always kind of been like that. It’s always been fun, but now I’m not doing routines, I’m not doing tumble sets and things like that. I’m just in there playing with new skills and doing whatever I want. There is no stress at all.”
All that’s missing from her little girl’s fantasy world is pretending she has a job in the circus. The only reason that’s not included is she need not pretend.
On July 17, Fernandez leaves home for 11 weeks of training in Montreal in preparation for starting a career with Cirque du Soleil, which bills itself as “a dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment” on its official website.
With the help of teammates and coaches at Illinois, Fernandez put together a demo tape of her gymnastics highlights, which ultimately led to an audition in Orlando and an invitation to the training in Montreal.
The feel she obtained for what sort of career she is pursuing took on more reality with the audition in Orlando and made her want it all the more.
“The people they bring together and the minds and creativity is just great and it’s an awesome atmosphere,” she said.
She’ll leave for Montreal not knowing where she will be sent at the end of it, provided she makes the cut, or what acts she’ll perform. She’s as open-minded as she is excited for the opportunity.
“At this point, it doesn’t really matter to me because I’m young and if they want me to tour, I’d love to see the world,” she said. “I’m single. I can do that and why not do that when I’m able to? That would be fantastic. If I’m set up in Vegas, hey, that’s great, too. If I’m set up in Orlando, that would be really great.”
Learning her role will come in time.
“They told me some of the things I’ll be training for, but it’s more holistic training,” she said. “They’re going to be training artistic and acrobatic stuff. They’re going to be teaching me how to put on my circus makeup, fitting me for costumes and things like that and teaching me to be a performer.”
Her precise gymnastic feats create confidence in both her and her future employers that she can learn the fundamentals quickly and safely. Figuring out how to blend her charismatic personality into the act will be the next step.
“With gymnastics, it’s very strict and it’s very structured,” Fernandez said. “You do this and you do it this way, so we don’t really get that creative side of it. Up there, they’re going to teach us how to be creative and teach us how to perform in front of a large crowd.”
She has been told a couple of the positions for which she will train.
“A Russian Swing Fire and also the Chinese Poles,” she said. “The Chinese Poles, it’s a big, long pole, there are a couple of them and there are videos on YouTube I’ve seen where you just climb up on them and hold a couple of strength positions and do some other things. The Russian Swing Fire is a big swing that goes back and forth and launches you off it and you do some flips.”
Fernandez didn’t spend 16 years competing in gymnastics so she one day could land a job in the circus. So why did she put all that time into the sport known to outsiders as one that causes injuries as much as anything else?
“My favorite part is probably how much you have to push yourself and the perfection that you seek,” she said. “And a lot of times you don’t get that. You’re doing a routine and you fall or something isn’t correct and that’s what drives you to get back up on the bar or get back up on the beam to make it perfect. And I think that’s what I love. I love that seeking perfection and driving for it and achieving it. When you achieve it, it’s like, oh my gosh, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
She anticipates having similar feelings when she blends performing arts with acrobatic moves in front of large crowds, possibly all over the world, considerably more exciting stuff than the typical first job out of college.