Posted on Jul 28, 2002

Lupfer with 'Eddie the Clown'

Standing atop the indoor ski jump ramp 35 feet in the air, Nori Lupfer can observe everything under the big top.

But the 5-foot blonde doesn't notice the thousands of people in the audience clapping and pointing. Their cheers and ahhs of amazement blend with the guitar, trumpets and synthesizer into a barely audible white noise.

All she thinks about is the ramp.

On cue with the music, Lupfer plunges down the soap-and-water-soaked plastic slope and when she reaches the curved lip at the end she takes flight.

The first thing she spots are the glowing overhead lights. Soaring into the upper reaches of the arena while remaining straight as an arrow, Lupfer lets her head drop backward and her feet rotate up. She hangs upside down. Then she notices the yellow trampolines.

Finally, as her legs continue flipping backward, Lupfer emerges right-side-up. She spies her destination — the 5-foot wide white stripe on the black 25-foot-wide air bag.

After three and a half seconds, she sticks the landing.

“When you nail a perfect jump, which isn't that often, the slow motion thing does happen,” said Lupfer, a 21-year-old senior-to-be at Union College. “It's three or four seconds of bliss.”

For people who love to fly (and Lupfer does), being part of a daredevil intro act to the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus is pretty good work, if you can get it. Right now, Lupfer is spending her second summer touring the country as part of the Max-Air Blizzard Battalion.

Natural talent
Lupfer started laying the groundwork for a future under the big top when she was 4 years old. Even then she had begun to reveal the interest and talents that would lead her to the circus. She was already taking ballet lessons when her mom, Signe, signed them up for mother-daughter skiing lessons. Lupfer was a natural. A skier was born.

Her love affair with the circus didn't begin until four years later, when she spent her first afternoon with the Big Apple Circus. From the clowns to the acrobats on the trapeze, she loved everything. Lupfer was so awed by the circus that one of her favorite movies growing up in West Lebanon, N.H., was “Big Top Pee-Wee.” Once her younger sister, Kellyn, aware of Nori's fascination, brought home a newspaper ad that asked “Do you want to join the circus?”

“Unfortunately, it was for a season pass,” says Lupfer, feigning disappointment at the punchline.

By 11, Lupfer was a competitive skier who had left the enjoyable but predictable world of alpine downhill and branched out into the creative, no-rules world of freestyle skiing.

“My mom told me that she thought it was a natural with my dancing background, but I was really surprised when my parents jumped on board with the freestyling,” said Lupfer, whose soft voice speeds up when recalling exciting moments.

And so began the nearly three-hour round trip commutes to practice at Nick Preston's camp in Campton, N.H.

As he watched her first front pike flip, Preston knew Lupfer was a special talent. Without any instruction, she had pointed her toes perfectly straight.

“There's a certain kind of body awareness, a coordination that's almost acrobatic,” Preston said.

The world of freestyle skiing breaks down into aerials (high-flying flips, twists and jumps), moguls (racing down bumpy hills) and acro (ballet on skis). While a natural athlete who excelled at aerials, Lupfer's best and favorite event was acro.

Freestyle career
As she grew up, the innocent 8-year-old's fantasy of running away and joining the circus gave way to the pressures and commitments required of competitive aerial skiing.

“I just didn't think I ever had anything the circus would take,” said Lupfer.

Lupfer's freestyle career took her as far as Switzerland, where she competed in the junior world championships. But overall, it was a spotty career, according to Preston, who felt that Lupfer wasn't cutthroat enough. Even Lupfer and her parents agreed that the glamour of the performance was more rewarding than the victories.

Nevertheless, when Lupfer was ready to go to Union College in 1999, she hoped to continue competing. After all, she would be relatively close to home and could train during winter break or even miss some classes if necessary.

She made the national team as an acro skier, but since she wasn't willing to put off school, the team said “no dice.” It seemed as though that chapter in her life was closing. So it was off to Schenectady to study visual arts at Union.

Summer 2001, the one between her sophomore and junior years, was supposed to be like any other. Lupfer planned to spend the summer skiing off ramps into lakes and flipping on trampolines with her friends on the U.S. ski team.

But fate tapped her on the shoulder and gave her a shot at the big top.

Invitation to the circus
Craig Peterson needed help. The CEO of Max-Air productions — the company which runs the indoor jumping show at the circus — needed some ski jumpers.

So the former world champion aerial skier called his old friend, Nick Preston, who had just the person in mind.

” 'Do you want to join the circus?' It's like, 'Yeah, how'd you know?' Lupfer said.

Nori's father, Greg, thought this was crazy. But the 55-year-old computer consultant trusted his daughter, who, despite her creative nature, was never given to capricious whims. Preston's assurances helped. He realized this was too cool to pass up.

Three days after final exams last June, Lupfer was on a plane to Kentucky to train for two weeks. Then she boarded the circus's train for a 4 1/2 day ride to Tucson, Ariz., where she would debut amid fireworks, lasers, clowns and elephants.

“These shows are usually out there at the fair with the wind blowing and the racing pigs,” Peterson said. “They're not usually out at a traveling Las Vegas-style show.”

But with the thrill of a new experience comes the apprehensions of the untested. Not every competitive jumper can handle the black lights, strobe lights, fireworks and routines cued to music.

“During competition, you wait for the wind, you fix your helmet. Basically, you go when you're ready. In show biz, you go when it's time to go, so that's a big adjustment for athletes,” Peterson said.

“I was worried,” Lupfer says of her first show. She replaced someone who had been injured. “Every one said to me, 'You're going to kill yourself,' she said. “It was like, 'Great, thanks. I can't wait to jump.'

“Would they send me home? Would I get a bloody nose? There were some nerves,” Lupfer wondered.

The first jump
In Tucson, the circus was scheduled for a “six pack” — three shows each on Saturday and Sunday. As Lupfer stared down the ramp for her first jump, the 20-foot distance between the ramp and the landing spot on the air bag started to look big.

“I have to make the air bag,” was the only thought racing through her head.

And she did — to thunderous applause and congratulations.

The first four shows were a success, and Lupfer's excitement about fulfilling her dream was swelling. But as her giddiness grew, so did her exhaustion from the intense schedule.

During her fifth show, Lupfer suffered her only serious injury. She over-rotated coming out of her somersault and landed on her upper back, which pushed her chin into her chest. To make a painful situation worse, the momentum kept her legs swinging backward, further driving her face into her sternum.

“I was too tired to control the excitement, and I kissed right between my chest,” said Lupfer, whose bright red lipstick left a mark between her breasts. The crowd oohed, but she ended up in the hospital overnight. Suddenly the warning everyone made before she started seemed a little too real.

Except for a bruise, though, Lupfer was fine and she continued the rest of the summer living the life of a performer/cultural ambassador/tourist.

Life as a sardine
The living quarters cars on the circus train contain eight separate 8-foot-by-10-foot rooms.

“It's like a jail cell,” said Peterson, who was worried about having to sell that aspect of circus life to Lupfer. “Telling someone they're going to live in something smaller than a dorm room wasn't an easy task. But rent is only $10 a week.”

When you're making a $1,000 a week, the cramped conditions aren't a problem, said Lupfer, who used some of her money to buy a digital camera. So for two months in summer 2001, while her friends were going through the daily grind of training for skiing competitions, Lupfer was living in a box in a railroad car, learning new cultures and “flying” above cities all over the Southwest and West Coast.

“The Russians were the trapeze artists. The Brazilians were the dancers. And there were others from Mexico, and others from Eastern Europe,” said Lupfer, who can say “good,” “bad,” and “Hi, how are you?” in Russian.

While she still speaks fondly of her friends in the freestyle skiing world, Lupfer said that the family vibe of the circus was a welcome change. With the primary goal being to wow the audience, everyone cheers for everyone else in the circus and never has reason to take joy in a colleague's failure.

On the competitive skiing circuit, a group of five or six usually tight-knit freestylers are often all in the running for one or two spots on the team and some tensions between friends cannot be avoided.

Long histories
At the circus, many of Lupfer's fellow performers are former gymnasts and athletes in their native countries and have long family histories of their particular circus skill, Lupfer said.

“The Russians are training their kids from the time they're walking,” said Lupfer, noting that one 8-month-old was already being trained as an acrobat.

One of the most rewarding aspects of living in the circus is sharing in each other's heritages, Lupfer said. It's something that has made her father, who has seen the show 11 times, jealous.

“I lived through the Cold War,” Greg Lupfer said. “My generation was taught to hate the Russians. To me, these people were slightly less unfamiliar than Martians. But Nori has had the true experience. She is better suited to live in the world than I ever was.”

And if spending one summer getting paid to fulfill a childhood dream and learn about other cultures while traveling around the country had been the sum total of her circus experience, Lupfer would have been elated beyond words.

But then Craig Peterson got desperate.

New dilemma
It was a Friday night last January and the Lupfers were just returning from vacation in Florida.

On their answering machine was a message from Craig Peterson, Nori's former circus boss. One of his troupe had just departed for the winter to compete in the high-flying outdoor jumping circuit. He needed a replacement.

Would she be interested in ditching the winter trimester of her junior year to run back to the circus?

“Absolutely,” she thought to herself. But there were other variables to consider.

Dad had already paid the nonrefundable tuition for the trimester. However, when he saw Nori's eyes light up, he knew they had to find a way.

So that night Lupfer tracked down Union College Dean of Students Frederick Alford's home phone number and laid out the situation. Lupfer was ahead of schedule to graduate in June 2003, so she wouldn't fall behind.

“He said that school's always going to be there, but the circus isn't,” Greg Lupfer remembered.

And with that it was a break from term papers, finals and cram sessions and another chance to dazzle audiences with back layout somersaults and see her new friends.

By Christmas, Lupfer was performing in San Diego, one of more than a dozen cities she'd visit in the next three months. For their New Year, the Russians cooked everyone a huge feast of caviar, meat, potatoes, chicken skin, pork legs and an odd jelly made of pig ears.

“They want you to understand how great their culture is. They bring you this huge plate which you are expected to eat,” said Nori, who confessed to sneakily brushing off the something called chicken belly buttons when no one was looking.

For her part in the de facto cultural exchange program, Lupfer took some of her Mexican friends snow skiing.

“They had never skied before and they had the greatest time. When I met these folks down at the show, they were thanking me profusely for what my daughter had done,” Greg Lupfer said.

Nori Lupfer didn't turn off her creativity once she left the ramp either. The avid photographer and former dancer was surrounded by inspiration.

People from all over the world dressed in silly costumes wearing bright-colored makeup surrounded by animals made amazing photographic subjects. Lupfer shot 4,000 pictures — candids, portraits and every other kind — and used 49 of those photographs in her thesis. This past June, Lupfer transformed the apartment she shared with two other students into an art gallery, even hosting an opening there.

After this tour of duty with the circus, Lupfer said that she will return to school for classes this fall. During the year, she plans to spend a trimester in New York City studying film production, but she has not closed the door on an eventual return to the circus. Lupfer said that she might be interested in another go-round, though she stopped far short of saying she would become a circus careerist.

Unfortunately, Lupfer wasn't able to capture everything about her adventure on film. Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks showed up for a performance in Southern California and, sitting just a few feet from Lupfer, waved in her direction.

“I thought, 'He came to see me perform,' Lupfer said. “I'm totally imagining his face when he saw me jump. For the girl who loves to fly, this was perfect.”