Children everywhere have an answer when asked what they want to be when they grow up, and most change their minds more than once — but Abigail Schmidt never wavered.
Schmidt, the most decorated gymnast in Terps history, wanted to fly in Cirque du Soleil.
“I think I was 11 or 12 years old and I saw a Cirque du Soleil show called Alegría in Houston, and it just put a spark in me,” she said.
Her parents, Lucretia and John Quincy Adams, enrolled the Texas native in gymnastics classes when she was 6, but it was watching a flying spectacle of human beings pushing themselves to their artistic and physical limits that inspired her. Schmidt devoted her middle school, high school and college years to gymnastics, all while holding on to the secret hope she could one day become a part of that spectacle.
She came to College Park, where she was an active member of the Terps gymnastics team and graduated last year with a degree in English, specializing in Renaissance literature.
But it was on the gymnastics team where she really made her mark. Schmidt was known for her skill as a gymnast, her fierceness in competition and her strength as a member of a team she calls her family and closest friends. Schmidt, then Abigail Adams, won the East Atlantic Gymnastics League all-around title in her senior season, capping a career that included eight first-team All-EAGL honors.
“Abbey was an incredible competitor; she had the combination of raw talent, speed and power but always with an artistic grace to her gymnastics,” said her former coach, Brett Nelligan. Nelligan called Schmidt, who was conference champion her junior and senior years, “one of the most decorated gymnasts in program history.”
“Not only did she motivate with words, but she had a work ethic that made everyone around her want to work hard as well,” said former teammate and current Maryland gymnast Kesley Cofsky.
It was almost a trial run for what she would do at Cirque du Soleil, pushing herself through the intense training it requires of its artists.
“During college is when I first started saying out loud that I wanted to eventually, with all this gymnastics, go for it and either audition or send in an application,” Schmidt said. “I think I was kind of afraid to say it out loud, because that kind of made it a reality. That was something I really wanted to do.”
Although she was afraid of sharing her dream with her friends and family, they were listening. And when she tried to put it on the back burner after marrying former Terps lacrosse player Max Schmidt, they wouldn’t let her.
“My husband and I were talking about our dreams and our future together, and he was really the one who opened the door and said, ‘I’ve heard you say it before, that you want to be a part of Cirque and that you wanted to go for it, but how much do you mean that?’” Schmidt said. “He really just enabled me to go after it.”
In the first step in becoming a Cirque du Soleil cast member, called general formation, thousands of applicants from around the world send in audition tapes and applications, hoping to earn the chance to take part in three months of training at Cirque du Soleil headquarters in Quebec City. At the end, the top tier receives an offer of a show contract.
“It took many months of preparation and hard work in order to put together a highlight video and to really be recruited by Cirque,” Max Schmidt said. “Dreams don’t often turn out for people, and especially when it involves living your dream out for a profession.”
For some, it can take years to even make it to general formation, but after sending in an application in January of this year, Abigail Schmidt learned in late March she had been chosen. By August, she was living in a tiny apartment in Montreal, a country away from her husband, who plays professional lacrosse for the Ohio Machine.
“Being on a show would be an incredible opportunity, but that isn’t the full purpose of why I’m here,” Schmidt said. “If that’s all I thought about while I was here, then I would probably go crazy — my focus here is just to make the transition into an artist and pray, pray that I’m offered a contract.”
On stage, Cirque du Soleil performers accomplish challenging feats that seem to defy the laws of physics and anatomy, twisting, contorting and moving their bodies in ways that seem impossible. They can sing, act, dance and perform amazing physical stunts — but at a price.
“I am no longer a gymnast when I walk in here. First of all, it’s my job; it helps pay the bills. This is not something I love to do, so I do it in my spare time, like gymnastics was — this is a choice, to wake up in the morning and work hard, and it’s also a choice to not be just a gymnast,” she said. “I’m not just an acrobat, and I’m not just an actor or a dancer. I’ve spent 17 years focusing solely on my athletics and here it’s so much different. It’s about artistry, and if you’re just an acrobat here, you won’t make it.”
It’s a full workday of classes and meetings, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sometimes, Schmidt said, she only gets to fly, her specialty in acrobatics, for an hour a day, the remaining hours filled with acting classes, dance and voice lessons, physical therapy, conditioning and meetings with sports psychologists.
“The purpose of me being here is to make me an artist,” she said. “The last 17 years, I’ve been doing just gymnastics, so it’s been a hard transition.”
Although she misses her husband, dog and Crock-Pot in Ohio, through the exhausting physical demands of the job, the pain of blisters and the rough calluses on her hands and feet, it’s still her inner child’s dream.
“This is so cliche, and I’ve heard so many people say it since I’ve been here, but it really is a dream come true,” she said. “It might be easier to just sit at a desk all day long, but my favorite thing is that I’ve had a glimpse of this since I was 12 years old, and I’m 23 now and I’m here.”