Stretching for Cirque: O’Rourke reaching for acrobatic dreams


Courtesy of Katie O'Rourke

By Phoebe Gilmore / Staff Writer

Three-year-old Katie O’Rourke was on vacation in Texas when her parents first realized her natural talent for sticking a landing.

“I was bouncing on the bed and flipped off and somehow landed on my feet,” O’Rourke, a former Pitt gymnast, recalled, “so my parents put me in gymnastics.”

O’Rourke, a Washington, D.C., native, surrendered all of her free time to gymnastics, with her commitment reaching a fever pitch in the eighth grade. Seven total hours of daily practice — from 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. — forced her to quit both soccer and softball. While she recalls that friends stopped inviting her to events because they knew that she would decline, she does not regret her commitment to the sport.

“I think that [gymnastics] was chosen for me, just because it was the [sport] in the end that always made me happy, whereas the other ones were more of recreational fun,” O’Rourke said.

In high school, multiple Division I universities, including Ohio State University, West Virginia University and Iowa State University, sought O’Rourke for their teams. She committed to Pitt after attending a summer gymnastics camp with a former assistant coach.

“It’s a sacrifice, but in the end, it’s all worth it when you can say you’re a Division I athlete,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke, a 2014 Pitt graduate and one of the first recipients of Pitt’s ACC postgraduate scholarship, is currently in graduate school at Pitt for her MBA with a focus in marketing. Like most students, she does have a backup plan, though hers is more unconventional than most — performing in Cirque du Soleil.

“When I tell people about the Cirque thing, they ask what I’m doing with an MBA,” O’Rourke said. “I would say Cirque is the backup plan because it’s so hard to get into, even though that’s what I really want to do.”

During O’Rourke’s freshman season, Cirque du Soleil toured in Pittsburgh. After attending the show with a few teammates and touring backstage, she set her sights on becoming a Cirque performer.

“It was in the back of my mind until the end of my senior year because I wouldn’t have been able to do it anyway while I was here.” O’Rourke said. “So I’d train for things Pitt-related, but at the end, that was always my main goal.”

Mallory Brewer and Mike Rowe, both close friends and previous assistant coaches to O’Rourke at Pitt, recognize that she would excel in the intense gymnastic environment that Cirque has to offer.

“Katie has always been a performer and can steal the show in just about any crowd,” Brewer said.

Rowe offered equal praise for O’Rourke as well, citing her leadership skills and competitiveness.

“Katie has always been a leader by example, regarding getting the job done,” Rowe said. “In the competitive arena, she’s a gamer and you always knew that if she was in the lineup, she’d hit.”

After Alix Croop, another former Pitt gymnast, got hired as a Cirque performer, O’Rourke saw her dream becoming plausible. 

Rowe, who coached both O’Rourke and Croop at Pitt, noticed shared characteristics between the two.

“There are similarities in Alix and Katie in that they are both driven, self-motivated and great leaders,” Rowe said. “They are both amazing performers to top it off.”

The Cirque tryout process occurs either as a two-day, in-person audition or a 12-minute video with specific criteria, like dance, tumbling and stretching. The in-person auditions cut down the almost 200 attendees to about 20 potential Cirque performers. O’Rourke plans to complete both an in-person and video audition.

“It’s better to go in person because you’ll know right then, but it’s more intimidating that way. I probably will do both,” O’Rourke said. “So I’ll do the video and when I’m 100 percent ready, I’ll go in person and do it.”

O’Rourke is eager to get back into her home gym to train after a shoulder surgery setback last summer.  While she regularly works out, NCAA rules prevent her from using Pitt’s gym to train for Cirque. She plans to audition either in the summer or in the winter when she is finished with graduate school.

But even if she reigns victorious at the audition, O’Rourke still has to wait for her Cirque debut.

“Once you audition, even if you get in, you technically don’t make it. You just go in their talent bank,” O’Rourke said. “People will sit there for years and never get called. You can make it, but you usually won’t go in right away.” 

O’Rourke acknowledges that the amount of potential gymnasts vying for a spot can be intimidating. There aren’t many spots to go around.

“They have so many people in their talent bank,” O’Rourke said. “It’s overwhelming.”

As for now, Brewer suggests that O’Rourke stay patient.

“It is not easy to be chosen for Cirque, but I think that Katie is very capable,” Brewer said. “She has the look and skill level, but her natural ability to perform for a crowd can set her apart.”

Now, with O’Rourke finishing her MBA, she can’t help but look ahead toward a more rational career in sports marketing.

“I think a sports job is a little more practical to start out with, especially with my degree,” O’Rourke said. “I hope that it comes along and I can go right in.”

Still, fantasies of performing in Cirque are never far from her mind.

“At least I have more options than just Cirque, and if I don’t get it, I won’t be completely lost. But it’s my dream,” O’Rourke said.

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