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by Jeff Wilkin

Type A To Z

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Features reporter Jeff Wilkin on pop culture

Human cannonball fired up for circus career

In this time-lapse photo illustration, Nicole Sanders shows off her form as the "Human Cannonball" for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (Photo courtesy Feld Entertainment)

I haven’t done a cannonball since high school.

The routine was always simple. It started with a sprint toward an in-ground swimming pool, followed by an athletic jump into the air.

Once airborne, I’d grab my legs below the knees, tuck into a ball and then make a big splash. Took about three seconds.

Nicole Sanders’ cannonball is faster, louder and a lot more thrilling. As Nitro Nicole, the “human cannonball” for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Circus Xtreme,” Sanders zooms out of a 24-foot-long cannon at 66 mph and takes about 2.2 seconds — give or take a millisecond — to cross the arena and land in a giant, cushy air bag.

While I was trying to impress teenage girls of the 1970s with reckless feats of bravery, daredevil Sanders impresses thousands of people every night the circus is in town.

Our town is next. “Circus Xtreme” will be at the Times Union Center in Albany for six shows that begin Thursday and run through Sunday. For the traditional triple-header on Saturday — the “Greatest Show on Earth” starts at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. — Sanders will go boom three times.

“I always tell people, it is honestly unlike any other sensation you can feel,” Sanders, 31, said in a telephone interview. “I would equate it to an extreme ride in an amusement park, but there, you’re all buckled in. Here, you have to maintain control of your body the whole time.”

The human cannonball gag has been around since the 1870s, when a spring-powered cannon propelled “Zazel” — real name Rosa Richter — into the wild blue. “Zazel” later found a job with P.T. Barnum’s outfit, and the circus had a brand new gag.

Sanders was a dancer before she learned how to travel faster than a speeding bullet. She grew up in Daphne, Alabama, and took her first ballet class at age 3. She loved to put on shows for her family.
Nicole studied psychology and ballet at Loyola University in New Orleans and spent plety of time dancing. Knee injuries put an end to her passé and pirouette career.

She decided to take her ballet training to an aerial platform, and began to study trapeze. Working in the air was much easier on the knees.

Training at the Circus Center in San Francisco followed. So did smaller circus gigs.

Sanders made the Cole Brothers circus team in 2014, stayed on the roster through 2015 and eventually heard about a cannonball opening at Ringling Bros. Cannon master Brian Miser was looking for a new flyer.

“I only thought about it for a couple minutes and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course! I’m going to send him a Facebook request.’ The next morning I woke up to him messaging me on Facebook saying, ‘Would you be interested in this role?’ I thought about that for about 15 minutes, but it just seemed like it was really serendipitous. I don’t use that word too often, but it really did. It was just this next level I could take my training to.”

Sanders signed with Ringling-Barnum this past January, and began working with Miser.

“He’s the ‘Human Fuse,’” Sanders said. “That’s because he’s lit on fire.”

There are no flames for Sanders. When people see her on the arena floor, she climbs to the top of the cannon. A group of dancers are part of the act, and there’s rock ’n’ roll music before the Bang! Zoom! moments.

Everything is checked and double-checked.

“Everything is closely monitored,” Sanders said. “I have four people on my air bag, for the crew guys, so when I’m beginning my act I’m actually lining up the air bag so I’ll land in the center of it.”
Ever scared?

Only every time.

“I always get nervous,” Sanders said. “But I think that’s something healthy to do and it keeps you vigilant about your safety precautions, what you need to do safely in the air. You have to have that sense of doing everything properly.”

There’s no cape, no helmet. The helmet would be heavy and could throw off Sander’s center of gravity or mess up the flight path. She does get to wear goggles, and her eyes are wide open when it’s time to move out.

“It’s obviously head first and I’m looking at the air bag the whole time,” Sanders said. “Then at the last second I do a small tuck so I’ll land back-first.”

Circus magic

Sanders isn’t going to blab about the secrets behind the explosive appearance. “It’s just circus magic,” she said.

There’s also magic in circus life.

“There are a lot of things I really enjoy about it,” Sanders said. “I really enjoy the travel, the many different cities we get to see and experience and I obviously love performing and doing something I love and have a passion for as my career.

“I think the other thing I really like is the sense of community you get,” Sanders added. “You’re working with these people, you’re living closely with them, a lot of them are from different countries.

You all come together and most of them have the same passion I do for their careers and they love to perform. So it’s really refreshing to be able to be a part of that.”

She likes the way Ringling-Barnum is keeping the circus fresh.

“The elephants have recently been retired, they were part of circus history, a staple for years,” Sanders said. “I think it’s great that Ringling is transitioning and trying to do all these new ideas. For example, we’re doing a lot of singing and dancing in the show and it’s such a production number. That’s innovative in and of itself because circuses used to be a traditional presentation of items. Now we’re weaving it all together. Our other show, ‘Out of This World’ is incorporating ice elements into the show. There are skaters and some acrobatic troupes on ice skates as well.”

“Nitro Nicole” also likes an old circus tradition. During the preshow segment, fans can roam the arena floor and collect autographs and photos of the performers.

“A lot of little girls will come out and they or their moms will be like, ‘Oh, she’s so pretty!’ and I’ll be like, ‘Thank you so much, but guess what I also do? I’m courageous and I’m brave and I’m dedicated ’cause I get shot out of a cannon.’ For girls, I like to say, ‘It’s not just that you’re pretty. You’re capable of doing so many other things.’ ”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124, or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at

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