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Soar Losers

It's air today, gone tomorrow for the frequent flyers at the Central YMCA.

Barbour is perhaps the only Y flyer without even a suppressed urge to join the circus. "They live like gypsies," he points out, "and they certainly don't make much money."

A champion gymnast in high school and college, Barbour took up trapeze after a stint in the Army. "I had seen it there as a boy, when I'd take the streetcar downtown," he remembers. "Around 1960, I was looking for a way to keep active, and I went down and I could see right away that most of these people were small and I was comparatively big. I could see I was a catcher."

As Barbour explains it, the catcher is the half of an aerial pair who never leaves his trapeze, but plucks the flyer out of the air and flings him back to his perch--sometimes performing tricks along the way. Barbour has always felt comfortable with catching, as well as with the athletes he catches. "They know where their body is, even when it's upside down," he says of trapeze artists. "And fearless. I remember seeing a flyer's three-year-old daughter climbing up the ladder all by herself--even her feet were tiny!

"But then," he adds, "as you come to learn, the world is full of fearless little girls."

Barbour has been the chair of DU's department of human communications studies since 1965, but he keeps his academic and athletic worlds separate. "It's not widely known among my students that I fly," he says, "and they might not even be interested." Much of his vacation time is devoted to out-of-town trapeze work. He started by filling in at Club Meds for his old pal Christians, then went on to teach the native owners of a Dominican resort how to put on their own trapeze show.

"And last year, I agreed to work in the Caribbean for a month," he says. "I would do a deep dive before lunch, have a nap afterward, and then go catch trapeze all afternoon. Sure, I drop some people. I drop them all the time, but they all get to enjoy hitting the net sooner or later."

Sometimes later. Bernadette Pace brought her then-four-year-old daughter to the Y in 1970 and stayed to fly--"even though at that point I had never done anything and was completely without strength," she says. "I was very afraid. I couldn't bring myself to let go and fly, I had to be pried off. But I just did what they told me, swing off and drop in the net. When the fear wore off, I was just like a skydiver, I started to be a little wild, to do silly tricks. Then I went back to being sensible again. And I never missed a night at the Y. If I could walk, I was there. If I was delirious, I went anyhow, because when you're flying, you're alive."

In 1982, Pace followed her scientist husband from Denver to the University of Indiana at Bloomington, where he promptly left her for another woman after almost thirty years of marriage. The shell-shocked Pace decided to pour her excess energies into her circus skills rather than her career as a microbiologist. "When you're the person who doesn't have any choice," she says, "you go on."

For Pace, this meant building a trapeze in her backyard and forming the High Flyers Family Circus, an organization open to anyone who cared to sign her liability waiver and help maintain the equipment.

"It took a year to build, one piece at a time," she says, "and the whole time I was building it, I was filled with doubt--who am I to be doing this? But people came, and I taught them what I knew."

After a while, university gymnasts showed up in the yard and taught Pace some new tricks. "I now have a stack of liability releases ten inches high," she says. "That's how many people have flown in my yard. Some have gone on to become professional circus people. Some are grounded by family ties but are good enough for the circus, so they fill in on professional tours."

Pace herself heads to Stockholm this summer with an all-female flying group. Once the wimp of the Y--barely able to run a quarter-mile on its wooden track--at 52 she now flies and catches with ease. And every year, she hosts the Denver flyers for a weekend "that comes to resemble a gigantic slumber party," she says. "We have mats all over the house where people sleep, and we fly constantly."

And Pace's place may be the only location where Denver's troupe can fly this year. The demise of the Y program is "an unbelievable loss," she says. "There is nothing like it anywhere in the country, and may never be again. Besides, that program was very safe. All of these years--since 1927--without a claim against the Y or a single major incident. In my twelve years, I think I saw three minor injuries."

"We were fairly responsible adults," adds flyer Mark Sexton. "We wanted a little risk--not meaningful risk--in our lives. We wanted the camaraderie and the interaction between a flyer and a catcher, where you have to really trust each other and the result is wonderful."

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