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For Olympians, games not always last performance

Aug. 07, 2008, 7:42 p.m. (ET)

LAS VEGAS (AP) An Olympic medal might be a satisfying, patriotic accomplishment, but the skills needed to get there aren't exactly great on job applications.

Unless, of course, the circus calls.

Cirque du Soleil performer Kanako Kitao says the future was nowhere in her mind when she trained for synchronized swimming at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

"Before the Olympics, I couldn't think about after," the 26-year-old silver medalist. "I didn't know if I could go to the Olympics, but I wanted to try anyway."

Kitao said she was supposed to compete in the upcoming games in Beijing, but instead left her team in 2005 to audition for the Canadian circus. joining the Canadian circus and its

"When I decided (to) finish competition, I didn't know if it was a good decision," said Kitao, who grew up in Kyoto, Japan. "I was looking for the next something to make me happy and I found it here."

Kitao now swims with 10 former Olympians in the 85-person cast of "O," the water-themed show at the Bellagio casino-resort in Las Vegas. The performers once represented the world's best in diving, synchronized swimming and gymnastics in the Olympics and other competitions.

Most Olympians devote their young lives entirely to their sports, but that commitment hardly guarantees a steady paycheck later in life, even to the world's best. But more athletes are learning about Cirque and other shows that need reliable flippers and divers, as recruiters develop pipeline relationships with coaches and athletes across the highest levels of various small sports.

"Their whole lives revolve around the sport for so many years and then from one day to the next it's just kind of gone," said Luanne Madorma, casting director for "Le Reve," another water-themed acrobatics show at the Wynn Las Vegas that boasts six former Olympians, including a 2004 bronze medalist in synchronized swimming from the United States.

"It's really nice now to see the machine start," Madorma said. "Once the ball starts rolling and word of mouth starts going, then more athletes will understand that this is an option for them."

Madorma said the relationships shows have built with teams and athletes around the world is starting to pay off, with more teams incorporating performance art into their sports, leading to more athletes qualified to perform.

Both "Le Reve" and "O'' use moving platforms to manipulate the depth of large pools at the center of the stage, allowing performers to enter from backstage, underwater, from the ceiling or from the audience.

Twice a night, five nights a week, Sergei Kudrevich jumps 60 feet from the rafters of the "O'' stage into its sophisticated 1.5 million gallon pool. In Beijing, Olympic high divers will jump from at most 10 meters - 32.8 feet - and won't be costumed or have to deal with stage lights, music and other performers. The jump at "O'' is so high, divers must hit the water feet first to avoid breaking their arms or hands.

"Every day, it's like a competition," said Kudrevich, who dove for Belarus in the 1996 games, and was picked to compete again in 2000 but opted to perform for "O'' instead. "You have to keep that technique."

Kudrevich also jumps into the water off a Russian swing, a pendulum propelled like a swing by three people that launches him higher and farther than a springboard ever could. It's more dangerous than Olympic dives because if the timing is off, Kudrevich could go flying into the first rows of the crowd or go straight up and down and hit the swing again, he said.

Krista Monson, head of casting for Cirque du Soleil's resident shows division, said salaries can vary depending on what performers are asked to do and how rare their skills are.

Athletes-turned-performers at resident shows in Las Vegas can expect competitive salaries on par with union Broadway performers, roughly $50,000 per year with full benefits, Madorma said.

The Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil does not divulge specific salary information because it is a private company, a spokeswoman said. There are 20 Olympians are among the 1,000 performers in 18 traveling and resident Cirque shows worldwide.

Though "Le Reve" is not affiliated with Cirque du Soleil, it was created by the same Belgian theater director who wrote and directed "O," Franco Dragone.

In both shows, synchronized swimmers are used to spending minutes underwater and are scuba certified so they can breathe without coming up.

Kristina Lum, whose U.S. team placed fifth in synchronized swimming at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, said "Le Reve" has let her develop new talents and keep performing without worrying about competition.

Lum said she first learned of swimming professionally in 1997, but coached, worked at a department store, served cocktails and taught swimming lessons at a YMCA before coming to "Le Reve."

But being an Olympian - presumably the best of the best athletically - isn't a sure ticket to becoming a performer.

Madorma said roughly three of 100 athletes make the cut during typical open-call, five-hour auditions designed to test athletic skills, performing, dancing and acting. That doesn't guarantee them a job.

At Cirque, performers often must go through a 3-month training camp in Montreal before they are offered a contract.

"We didn't have this sort of opportunity when we were younger," Lum said. "You go to the Olympics, synchronized swimming wasn't a professional sport, it was just something I think a lot of us saw as little girls and really wanted to do that."

"Doing synchronized swimming as an amateur sport, you don't get paid very well. You're on national teams or Olympic teams - it's not going to pay the bills, pretty much," Lum said.

"There's so much more freedom doing something like this. In competitions, you're restricted to certain required movements, it has to be done a certain way, a certain look," she said. "Here you can just pretty much do whatever thing you create that day."


On the Net:

Cirque du Soleil: www.cirquedusoleil.com

Le Reve: http://tinyurl.com/5qapgo