- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

It’s never too late to run away and join the circus, and Paula Bridwell half-jokes that she just might.

Since 1992, Mrs. Bridwell has been an amateur trapeze artist secretly waiting for her children to grow older. At 45, she is a member of the Imperial Flyers trapeze club in her hometown, the Denver suburb of Westminster, Colo. This makes her one of a small but growing number of Americans who fly just for the fun of it.

“There is an adrenaline rush that you can’t duplicate,” she said.

Mrs. Bridwell, who was a gymnast as a teenager, fell in love with flying while on vacation at a Club Med on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. The resort had a trapeze school for tourists, and some were brave enough to leave one trapeze and be grabbed by a catcher waiting on the other.

“My second time up, I went to a catcher, and that was pretty much me,” Mrs. Bridwell said.

Club Meds have been seeding interest in the sport, said Jonathon Conant, president and founder of the Trapeze School of New York, which trains would-be acrobats and gives them a place to practice. Mr. Conant’s interest was spurred by a Club Med visit about five years ago.

“I have a background in human development, and was a professional dancer and stuntman, and I was looking for a tool to use all of my range of skills to help people feel better about themselves,” Mr. Conant said. “I saw people going up terrified and coming down with a new sense of confidence, and I was hooked.”

Mr. Conant estimates the sport has no more than about 5,000 participants nationwide. “The flying trapeze hasn’t come into its own yet for people, in the general sense,” he said, but the trapeze can build confidence and physical development.

In amateur programs, the daring young man on the flying trapeze has a lot of company.

“We coach anyone who wants to start off,” Mrs. Bridwell said. “Our oldest member is 70, and he’s flying on a regular basis.”

The Imperial Flyers recently attached a 4-year-old to safety lines and let him try. “He loved it. He wasn’t afraid at all,” she said.

Safety lines are vital for beginners. Belays are rigged to the waist on both sides, so anyone who misses or falls hangs in the air until he or she is lowered. Being roped on the sides lets the would-be acrobat try tricks, such as somersaulting forward circus-style, without risking being tangled in the lines, Mr. Conant said.

Although trapeze favors the small and lean, it is not beyond the capacity of people who are neither. As a catcher, Mr. Conant can handle people weighing up to 270 pounds. “I would be hesitant to say anyone can do this, although we have not turned anyone away,” he said.

People start by swinging on the trapeze, and anybody can swing, Mrs. Bridwell said. However, although some overweight people advance into fairly complicated tricks, she said, the strain created by their weight raises the risk that they could damage their shoulders, she said.

“Every person should be able to pick up their own body weight,” said Sylvia Zerbini, a solo trapeze star with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. “I think it’s sad if a person can’t hold themselves. I can’t imagine the feeling.”

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