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November 20, 2014

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2012 Olympics:

Las Vegas Strip offers new opportunities for former Olympic athletes

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Terry Bartlett, from Great Britain, is a clown performer in Cirque du Soleil’s “O.” Bartlett competed in men’s gymnastics at the 1984 Los Angeles, 1988 Seoul and 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Cirque Du Soleil's Past Olympians

All of the former Olympians, Hiromi Kobayashi, Lila Neesseman-Bakir, Bianca Van der Velden, Kristina Lum Underwood and Isabel Moraes, in Le Reve  The Dream show are synchronized swimmers in the show. Launch slideshow »

If you want to watch local Olympians in action, you can make last-minute arrangements to fly to London.

Or you can head to the Strip most any night and watch a dozen Olympic veterans — including gold, silver and bronze medal winners — perform overhead or in water as gymnasts and swimmers.

Well, one fellow is a clown.

Indeed, for some Olympians, the Strip offers new opportunity once their competitive careers end.

Seven past Olympic synchronized swimmers, divers and gymnasts have traded the colors of their national flags for the multicolored costumes of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio. “Le Reve — The Dream” at Wynn Las Vegas includes five past Olympians in its cast.

Audiences may not realize they’re watching some of the world’s top athletes, but opportunities to be cast in Las Vegas shows are well known in Olympic training camps across the world.

“I had always known I wanted to do this,” said Christina Jones, a member of the U.S. synchronized swimming team that competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Jones, 24, grew up in Santa Clara, Calif., the same city that produced four members of the 1996 gold-medal Olympic synchronized swimming team. Three of those athletes went on to be in the original cast of “O.” One of them, Suzannah Bianco, still performs in the show.

“These were my heroes, and I knew they had ended up here,” Jones said. “I used to tell people in interviews, when they asked what I wanted to do after I stopped competing, I told them I wanted to be here.”

Cirque executives maintain contacts with international sports federations to recruit gymnasts, synchronized swimmers and divers. They also donate equipment to gyms and coaches. The company won’t talk to athletes who are still competing, but coaches let casting directors know when athletes are leaving competition.

“We’ve built alliances over the long term,” said Krista Monson, a Cirque casting director.

A few former Olympic performers have won medals. Japanese synchronized swimmer Miho Kono won a bronze medal in 1996. Japanese synchronized swimmer Kanako Kitao won a silver medal in 2004. Both perform in “O.”

Other performers are Olympic hopefuls who couldn’t quite realize their dream. Several cast members in “O” and “Le Reve” barely missed making their countries’ Olympic teams.

Five past Olympians — all synchronized swimmers — perform in “Le Reve.” They come from the United States, France, Japan, the Netherlands and Brazil.

“When we know an athlete will become available, it’s a matter of matching the right person to the right position,” Monson said. “It just so happens at shows like ‘O,’ we have several positions that are great fits for these athletes.”

Even for athletes who have lived in the Olympic spotlight, the stage can be daunting.

“It’s very intimidating,” said Maurizia Cecconi, a two-time Olympic synchronized swimmer for Italy. “I knew about competing and the technical side of sports. But here there’s so many other skills you need. I didn’t know anything about being an acrobat or an aerialist.”

Cecconi competed in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 2000 Olympics in Beijing. She auditioned for Cirque in Rome.

“I blew out my knee during the auditions,” she said. “Even though it was so painful, there were 20 of us auditioning and I was one of the ones chosen. It was a lot of pressure. But I was used to thriving on pressure. I live for it.”

Cecconi came to Las Vegas in 2005 as part of the original cast of “Le Reve.” She moved to the Bellagio as a performer in 2010 and now is a swimming coach for “O.”

Terry Bartlett competed on the British men’s gymnastics teams in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He now performs as a Cirque clown.

Monson said Bartlett learned how to be a clown from watching other performers. He transitioned from his acrobatic role to funny man, allowing him to extend his career by years. He now appears dressed all in white, making people laugh before the show begins and during it on a floating shanty cabin.

“We like to say they come to us as athletes, but they wind up as artists,” Monson said.

Though their days of points and medals are long gone, the athletes are still judged by audience members who pay up to $180 for a seat in the theater. They still take pride in hitting precise movements in the pool or twirling off a high dive and piercing the water with perfectly pointed ballet toes. But now they do it with masked faces, wild wigs and scuba gear strapped to their bodies.

“There’s still pressure, but it’s a different kind of pressure,” Jones said. “In competition, you’re trying to be 100 percent perfect for a three-minute routine. In the show, you’re trying to be perfectly on for 90 minutes, two times a night, five nights a week.”

“Many people are coming to see the show for the first time, and you don’t want them to be disappointed,” Cecconi added.

Like most athletes dedicated enough to make the Olympics, the performers thrive on the pressure. And they relish the opportunity to continue perfecting their sport.

“It really has been a gift to be able to keep doing what I am passionate about,” Jones said. “Cirque has given me another way to take my athletic ability, what I love doing, and turn it into a career.”

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