Hentoff-Killian thinks occasionally about this and about what could happen to her if one of her own shots goes wrong. But she has faith in the air bag, which is large enough to catch her if she goes slightly off-course, and in her own ability to calculate the correct angle at which to position the cannon, a formula that takes into account distance, force, her own weight and even the air temperature inside the arena.

"I would really, really have to mess up calculations to miss badly enough [not to land on the air bag]," she explains. "It's hard to do on accident, unless a mechanical failure happens to the cannon itself."

Every performance begins with a cannon check, to make sure that nothing has gone awry overnight and that everything is as it should be, and then the positioning of the air bag, which the Human Cannonball does herself. There's also this precept from her mother: "If you get hurt, it's because you made a mistake or your partner made a mistake, or there was a problem with the rigging, which you were supposed to check anyway."

Courtesy Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
See a larger version of this week's cover.
Cover illustration by Tim Lane

So far she has been injured only once, bloodying her nose when she accidentally kneed herself during practice. She called her mother afterward. "I messed up," she said, "but I wanted to do it again right and then call you."

This week the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus plays Brooklyn, New York. Hentoff-Killian lives with 300 other circus performers and staff, plus horses and elephants, on the milelong circus train, where, by virtue of her job as the Human Cannonball, she's been assigned a single room with a kitchen and private bath and her own washer and dryer.

Circus days are long, starting with a 9:30 a.m. call for costumes and makeup if there's a morning performance, not ending till midnight on a good night. She eats her meals with the other performers on the train's dining car (called Pie Car) or, if the arena happens to be in a city, in nearby restaurants. The Human Cannonball tries to stick to a balanced diet, low in carbs and high in protein, but she doesn't manage it as often as she feels she should. She stays in shape by running and stair-climbing before each shot and by doing the regimen of conditioning exercises — sit-ups, stretches, elaborate pushups — she learned at Circus Harmony. She tries to get eight hours of sleep a night and makes up for deficits on travel days.

Human cannonballs have longer careers than one might expect. Hentoff-Killian knows some who have been working for more than seventeen years; her teacher, Brian Miser, has been getting shot for ten years (sometimes while on fire).

While Hentoff-Killian is not opposed to taking longer flights in the future, once she gets more comfortable with the cannon, she's not sure if she'll ever want to fly while in flames. "You have to hold your breath when you're on fire," she says, "and I like to breathe."

She has been branching out in her circus duties. Before evening performances, she participates in the preshow where audience members get to come into the ring and meet the performers: The clowns do a special act, the horses come out, and one of the elephants makes a painting. Hentoff-Killian hands out Greatest Show on Earth temporary tattoos and talks with little kids. Sometimes she tells people that she's the Human Cannonball. The reactions are mixed.

"The kids think it's supercool," she reports. "The adults think I'm insane."

"She's a real-life superhero for the kids," says Nicole Feld, a Ringling Bros. producer who had a hand in hiring Hentoff-Killian. "But she's also someone the audience can identify with."

To alleviate the pressures of being the Human Cannonball, Hentoff-Killian asked to be part of a second act: In the show's second half, she rides an elephant.

"It's a treat for myself after every shot," she says. "It's the coolest thing ever."

The circus moves on every week or so. Aside from her time at school in Canada, this is the longest she has ever been away from home. She won't return to St. Louis until Ringling Bros. plays the Scottrade Center in October, when some of the performers from Circus Harmony will join her in the ring during the preshow. "You have no idea how excited I am," she says.

Back at Circus Harmony, she has not been forgotten. During intense conditioning class, students make what they call "Elliana noises," inarticulate grunts of frustration meant to circumvent Hentoff's strict no-swearing policy. This year's big Circus Harmony show, Capriccio, was dedicated to Hentoff-Killian and two other alums who've gone on to professional circus careers; the program featured a photo of Hentoff-Killian in full Human Cannonball girl-power regalia waving triumphantly from atop the cannon.

And of course her mother can't resist a little bragging, even in the middle of a Sunday-afternoon circus during which she's serving as ringmaster, when she takes a minute to announce that one of Circus Harmony's most illustrious grads is now a member of the Greatest Show on Earth.

Even so, she's still a little amazed.

"I never imagined she would do this," Hentoff says later. "Elliana's proof that you can grow up to be a Human Cannonball.

"Anything is possible."

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