By MIKE CHAIKEN
If you go to the circus, you expect to see clowns and trapeze artists… and a few animal tricks as well.
But when “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus XTREME” comes to town this month, there will be an X-Games-type wrinkle to the proceedings.
The show includes The Freewheelers – BMX Riders, which includes Koji Kraft. Koji competed in the X Games in 2000 at the age of 17, and took home three silver medals. He won the BMX World Championships in mini ramp and placed second in vertical. In 2009, he placed second in vertical at the World Championships.
In a phone call from one of the circus’s stops across the country, Koji said the partnership of BMX riders and the circus was a good one in his mind. “I get to do what I love. And I get a full-time job,” said the rider, who typically works as a freelancer when he competes.
For the riders, one of the reasons why they wanted to join the circus was it gave them the opportunity to build their audience and win over new fans.
Koji said being a part of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey gives the riders a chance to push kids into a safe sport that they might not have ever tried before. The cool thing about BMX riding is it is a sport that caters to the individual rather than a team, said Koji. “You don’t have to play team sports to be an athlete.”
And it is a sport that requires the athletes to be in tip top shape, said Koji.
At first, said Koji, he and his other riders were skeptical about joining Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. “We all had a lot of mixed feelings,” said Koji. “This is a lot of work.”
And, said Koji, “At first, it was difficult to adjust.”
But now, said Koji, “it’s really enjoyable.”
In the riders’ act in the circus, Koji said they perform many of the same types of stunts that they might have at a competition. But instead of competing and performing individually, he said they choreograph their stunts and work in unison.
“Now we’ve got seven riders going at the same time,” said Koji. “It’s intense.”
It’s also an act that has an element of danger for the riders.
“You worry about your spot and if you fall (the other riders might not be able to stop),” said Koji.
“It’s a lot different than freestyle,” said Koji.
Being a part of the circus also has been a learning experience for Koji. He said he has been watching the other acts in the circus, taking mental notes, and asking questions.
Although he is now part of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Koji said, he had never been to a circus before. “It’s been incredible to watch.”
And Koji said he’s already dreaming of the chance to perform some of the other acts. The one he really wants to try is the human cannon ball, said Koji. “It’s an intense act… We’re all trying to figure it out… With the adrenaline rush (involved in it), that would be the most fun job to have.”
Koji first discovered BMX riding at the age of 11, he said. He rode around his neighborhood on his bike, jumping the curbs. Eventually, he found a track where the BMX riders would hang out. In time, “a brotherhood developed” with the other riders.
(And the BMX world is a family, said Koji. “We understand each other. They’ll take you in (when you’re traveling) and you’ll stay on each others floors.”)
Around the time he was 13, Koji said he began across the country offering master classes and doing demonstrations. At the age of 17, Koji said he competed in the X-Games for the first time.
Koji said he continued to compete as a BMX rider until he was 28. He took four years off before the circus came calling.
“I see this thing as having the potential to grow,” said Koji of his spot with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. “It shows the BMX lifestyle and how we interact and have fun.”
“It’s nice to bring (BMX riding) to the community (and show) you can do anything if you put your mind to it,” said Koji.
“Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus XTREME comes to Hartford’s XL Center, 1 Civic Center Plaza, from May 6 to 10. One hour before each performance, there is an all access pre-show, which is free with your ticket purchase, where audiences can meet the cast of performers and get up close to the animals.
Tickets start at $20 and children’s tickets are $15. For tickets, go to the XLcenter.com or visit the XL Center box office.
By MIKE CHAIKEN