I love circus.
I used to be a flying trapeze artist.
I wasn’t a professional flyer by any means. I was a flying trapeze instructor who, like so many instructors out there, loved flying and flew whenever I could. By no means was I flying at a professional level, though I like to think that I had the potential to be that good.
(In my last year of flying, I figured all sorts of things out and I would say that’s when I was at my best…and, of course, I have no video footage from that time).
I was also a catcher. I loved catching. I’ve always had the build of a flyer, but I think I have the head for catching, if that makes sense.
Before I ever even thought of myself as a flyer or catcher, I was a secondary school and college Physical Education teacher turned Personal Trainer.
It all started because of a girl.
We were dating (it was a long-distance relationship) and she was teaching flying trapeze at a summer camp. I went to visit her and, of course, ended up taking a swing.
It was like finding a lost love and a part of me knew life would never be the same after that.
Then the girl went to be a photographer at Club Med. I also went to visit her there. She was, of course, friends with the circus team so that meant while she was off taking pictures of people, the circus GO’s would say ‘put on a belt’ and so I did.
One night, a visiting artist performed on straps and it blew my mind. That’s when I knew: I’ve got to do this. All of this. Flying trapeze. Straps. Trapeze. All of the things. (That was all I knew at the time).
That’s when I knew: I’ve got to do this. All of this. Flying trapeze. Straps. Trapeze. All of the things.
After Club Med, the girl began teaching at TSNY’s Boston location. When I came to visit, I spent my days there. Whenever there was space in a class (and the boss wasn’t around), the instructors would say ‘Mike, put on a belt’. And so I did.
At this time, there were some really impressive flyers working there. I watched them, studied them. I can do this, I thought. I know I can. And so I did.
I watched them, studied them. I can do this, I thought. I know I can. And so I did.
I should really have mentioned this earlier, but the girl’s name is Theresa and we ended up getting married. She’s awesome.
While working as a personal trainer, I also began training to be an instructor. As a (retired-ish) physical education teacher, the teaching and coaching part of the equation was easy for me. Learning about the nuances of flying trapeze would normally be the challenging part, but I was fortunate
to have had some amazing teachers (who, conveniently, were also amazing flyers) teaching me about teaching flying trapeze.
I learned to fly. I learned to catch. I remember the advice I got just before catching Theresa for the first time: don’t drop your wife.
I performed as part of an incredible staff performance troupe and discovered the joy of sharing art with an audience.
Theresa and I also used to do partner-balancing. She and I even performed at a friend’s wedding. That was really cool and we had hoped to make that the first of many performance gigs together.
But then I hurt my shoulder in a flying trapeze show. On the First of May.
We had moved to Washington DC and were a part of the team that opened the school there. I didn’t know what I had done at the time, but an MRI later revealed a pretty decent tear of my labrum in my left shoulder.
(For those who are curious, it went from about 3:30 through to about 7:30 posteroinferiorly).
Now, labrum tears do not have to be career-ending and they certainly don’t all require surgery. In fact, in many cases, it’s possible to have a labrum tear and be pain-free and highly functional.
In my case, a couple of things happened.
First, I tried the physical therapy route. The physical therapist and orthopedic surgeon I was working with at the time declared my shoulder to be really strong…but since there was still a lot of pain when I tried to do a pull-up (and that sort of strength is necessary for my livelihood), the surgeon recommended surgery. I agreed.
(A note for others who find themselves in a similar situation: at this stage, you should get a second opinion).
In theory, it should have been roughly six months before I was ready to fly again. At the time—and this was back in the summer of 2010—that felt like an eternity.
There was a fun little hiccup ten days after my surgery. I had gone to bed with what felt like a muscle cramp in my mid/lower back. When I woke up in the morning, it felt quite a bit worse. Breathing was beginning to get difficult. I was being stubborn and didn’t want to make my wife miss work by making a big deal out of it…but when she came into the bedroom and I was on the floor, she insisted we go to the hospital. A good friend drove us to the ER (again, not wanting to be a nuisance, I refused the ‘call an ambulance’ idea…) where it turns out ‘I’m having trouble breathing’ and ‘There’s this stabbing pain in my back’ are like free tickets to the front of the line.
No waiting, woohoo! Turns out that was for the best because it was a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in my lung) and, I’m told, those are bad. Based on the pain from the accompanying pleuritis, I would say now that I agree. It was no fun at all.
Flying on the trapeze was, for me, an unparalleled joy.
It was like Zen and the Art of Flying Trapeze. It was an ongoing experience in confronting ideas of limitation and discovering new levels of possibility. It changed my view of who I am and what I am capable of doing—in the air and in life beyond the rig.
It was my introduction to the wider world of circus arts and has changed my life in wonderful and amazing ways.
Because of this, I approached my physical therapy with determination and dedication. I had no doubt in my mind: I was going to fly again. It was hard work. It was often incredibly painful, but the thought of flying again made keeping up the effort easy.
Physical therapy was hard. I was regularly at the clinic for two to three hours, making my way through all of my exercises and then having my PT stretch me. That was routinely agonizing.[For those who don’t know, shoulder surgery has come a long way. Arthroscopic labrum repair is a pretty impressive feat. Nevertheless, right after the operation, the surgeon has you immobilize your arm in a sling. Minimal movement—certainly avoiding active movement—protects the repair. Sometimes, the bigger the repair, the more cautious the surgeon will be about moving it too soon. Either way, keeping it still for that long makes the shoulder stiff. This is where the stretching comes in.]
I discovered that extreme pain can make me cry and laugh at the same time.
I was going to the clinic three times each week. After each session, I would go home and collapse from exhaustion. I think it was more the emotional and physical experience from the stretching than the exercises that tired me out.
As I approached the six-month mark, I began to feel a bit frustrated. My range of motion just wasn’t coming back. Every few weeks, I would go through the same cycle: The doctor kept telling me he couldn’t see a reason why I shouldn’t get full range of motion back…and the PT kept stretching me (which really hurt) …and the progress just wasn’t happening. Nevertheless, I remained committed to physical therapy.
What was all the more challenging is that at some point after my labrum tear, three people I know had labrum repair surgeries. One of them had both shoulders done. All of them were making more progress faster than me.
Before my injury, I was a full-time flying trapeze instructor.
After my injury, I couldn’t do any of the physical parts of being an instructor (obviously), so I began my behind-the-scenes work for Trapeze School. The company had grown to such a size that formalizing some policies and procedures was in order. My job became researching and writing up official SOP documents for all things safety-related: rigging inspections, equipment inspection and retirement guidelines, emergency action plans. I learned a lot during that time.
While my injury was winning the inauspicious prize for being the one that resulted in the most time away from my primary job function as an instructor, I was far from the only instructor who had gotten injured. And this recurring theme of instructor injuries was beginning to weigh heavily on the minds of the powers-that-be…and since I was working closely with them (and working through my own injury), it bothered me as well.
To be honest, right from the very beginning of my circus journey, it’s been an accepted part of the culture that people get hurt. Shoulders, especially. It was just an accepted fact that people who participate in the circus arts are likely to end up with shoulder pain at some point in time.
I simply do not buy into the idea that shoulder pain is inevitable when you’re a circus artist/athlete.
Immediately after my surgery, I set out on a mission to learn everything I could about how to train the shoulder for high performance. I was determined to come back stronger and more resilient than ever.
At the same time, I decided that my larger work on all things safety at Trapeze School should include injury prevention for the instructors.
This is a complicated and multi-factorial issue. One of the places where I started was learning about the Functional Movement Screen. I flew to Chicago (and of course, visited the rig there) and took my first certification course.
It was during that course that I learned about how to screen for potential movement limitations and muscular imbalances.
I also learned just how flawed my rehab had become.
During a break, I spoke to Gray Cook and he showed me an easy little exercise that improved my range of motion more than my own PT had in months.
Something wasn’t right. Gray recommended a PT near me and shortly after that weekend in Chicago, I changed therapists.
My PT blew my mind. He worked on my neck—which had badly atrophied—and improved my shoulder range of motion. The clinic showed me what dedication to ongoing education looks like. I made some great progress over the next six months.
My role as TSNY’s safety guy evolved.
I had the good fortune of consulting with Cirque du Soleil’s performance medicine department and developed resources related to foam rolling, warm-up, circus-style bodyweight conditioning workouts and stretching. I designed and implemented the instructor fitness standards and testing protocols.
Theresa and I moved back to Boston and I found another great PT here. My Facebook status updates from that time remind me how excited I was, week after week, to see my range of motion and strength coming back. I had gotten over 160 degrees of motion in my shoulder and shortly after that, after nearly three years, I was discharged from physical therapy.
I was ready to put my build a bulletproof shoulder plan into action. I moved forward cautiously, but eventually this happened:
I’m not sure I can adequately describe the emotions that surged through me after doing that. It was a little overwhelming. I had grown a bit numb and had forgotten what it felt like to swing through the air. It was fantastic.
And, I’m impressed by my own muscle-memory. I mean, as catch locks go, that isn’t pretty, but it’s not bad for three years of nothing but mental practice.
A little while after that, I took a swing again.
Words cannot fully explain the feeling of freedom and joy and exhilaration that taking a swing on the flying trapeze brings.
I was back…but not quite.
As part of my plan, I had begun working with a coach to re-build my strength. You can probably see in the video that my shoulder didn’t have full overhead range of motion (note that it’s not a straight line from my arm through to my torso). My coach referred me to another coach (Eric Cressey) who then referred me to a great doctor.
An MRI later and we had our answer: the reason I couldn’t get full range of motion with my shoulder because I had arthritis.
Boston is incredibly fortunate to have some of the country’s very best orthopedic shoulder surgeons. This guy was one of them. Nevertheless, when he said that there was no way I would regain my range of motion and be able to fly again, I went to get a second opinion.
The second doctor helped to explain things:
It looks like the original repair was simply too aggressive.
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint. The socket is the glenoid of your shoulder blade (scapula). The glenoid makes for a very shallow socket. Think golf ball on a tee. So the fibrocartilage labrum makes the socket deeper and provides more stability to the joint. The dimensions of the labrum in its healthy state are such that the humeral head can roll, slide and glide in the ways that it needs to when you want to raise your arm above your head.
When the labrum becomes damaged, the art of surgical repair lies in making sure the humeral head can move through the socket in a way that is as similar to the way it did before as possible.
The extent of the damage—and the skill of the surgeon—are key factors in determining what post-operative range of motion will look like.
It’s apparently standard practice for the surgeon to measure post-operative range of motion after he or she has completed their work but before you wake up (since you’re less likely to be tense while under anesthesia, the doctor can get a fairly good measurement.
My original surgeon did not perform such a measurement, so he had no way of knowing what my range of motion should look like. Without that as a guide, I was encouraged to continue working hard in physical therapy.
So as it turns out, all of that stretching and strengthening was actually just grinding the cartilage away…and developing a great big bone spur on my humeral head to boot.
I had a second surgery—a little more than four years after the first one—to clean things up (cut out a bunch of scar tissue, shave down the bone spur and smooth out the roughness that had developed on the humerus).
In his operative notes, the doctor described the state of my shoulder as “end-stage osteoarthritis”.
Strictly speaking, I would be a great candidate for a shoulder replacement…if I were 60. Both doctors recommended against doing it now—I have reasonably good function, minimal pain and, they said, if we were to do it now, I would most likely destroy the implant and need to have it redone.
So I don’t fly anymore. Hanging from a bar is possible, but it’s the kind of thing that will only make my shoulder worse (and it does kind of hurt…bone-on-bone pain is uniquely uncomfortable).
Until recently, I continued to teach flying trapeze.
I love teaching.
Along the way, I have continued to study and learn as much as I can about how the very best athletes in the world keep their bodies strong and supple. Shoulder performance in particular has become my focus. If I had the time and, most importantly, the funds, I would go to physical therapy school. Goodness knows I’ve studied enough of it already.
In the beginning, this site was the place where I published my “Tip of the Month” for the TSNY student newsletter…but as I wrote, I found myself wanting to write more and more about strength and conditioning and injury prevention for circus arts.
I’ve since left TSNY and have moved on to a larger mission. The way we think about strength and conditioning for circus arts—specifically at the recreational level—has got to change. It’s time for us to embrace the idea that circus isn’t the workout, circus is the reason you do your workout.
I know the pain of being injured and learning that I can never fly again. I also know that too many people out there are getting hurt when some proactive, circus-specific strength and conditioning work would spare them that pain.
It’s time for us to recognize that circus arts place some pretty formidable demands on the body and for those who spend their days sitting at a desk and coming to circus class at night, we need an approach to strength and conditioning that is specifically tailored for the modern circus artist/athlete.
What makes me consistently mad about the world is that there seems, at times, to be two different types of sport medicine available to people: one for the everyday person (who isn’t really considered an athlete in this context) and one for the elite athletes (professionals and Olympians and the sort). In both contexts, the approach to treatment and rehabilitation of an injury take into account both what the patient does for a living and the kinds of activities they do most often.
In one context, however, if the patient isn’t an elite athlete, all too often it means that their future in their activity/sport of choice gets treated like a nice-to-have rather than a must-have.
Top level athletes go to an orthopedic surgeon and/or physical therapist to get back on the field or back to performing and the sports medicine team works diligently to help them get there.
But the thing is, circus artist/athletes have found something magical in circus and when they get injured, they want to get back to circus just as much as the professional athlete wants to get back on the field. And they deserve a similar quality of treatment.
So what I’m here to do is to help circus artist/athletes to educate themselves—about their bodies and how they work and about what level of care they can and should expect. Ideally, I’ll help them find a PT who knows circus. After they’re done with rehab, I’m here to help them make their bodies strong and balanced.
I’m here to help circus artist/athletes make their bodies Circus Strong.