As the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to town, it brings along one more bit of evidence that truth can indeed be more unexpected than fiction: The Big Top’s human cannonball has a degree in psychology from Loyola University.

But she doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time analyzing why she gets shot out of a cannon for a living. Nicole Sanders, who graduated magna cum laude from Loyola in 2007, seems to know exactly why she does what she does.

She’ll be a featured performer in seven shows Thursday through Sunday at the Smoothie King Center.

“For me,” Sanders said by phone recently, “it’s more of a determination and personal challenge type of thing. That’s why I got into aerial (performing) in the first place.”

When offered the opportunity to train for the unusual job, “It took me about 15 minutes to decide,” she said. “I think shooting out of a cannon is mostly mental. You have to be mentally there; you have to really want to do it. If not, I don’t think it’s going to work out well.

“This is absolutely what I wanted to do.”

While she calls the physics of the cannon a circus secret, Sanders said she flies 73 feet through the air at 66 mph and lands in an air bag.

Muscle control is the key to a human cannon’s success. “I think that the No. 1 thing is body control and being able to react quickly … and keeping it the tightest you can possible imagine. The tighter you are, the easier it is to respond, and when you hit air bag you’re not taking much of a hit.”

But mental awareness is crucial, too. “Knowing your body position in the air and looking at where you are from the air bag” allows for making needed course adjustments.

The challenges of getting to the career have been a progression for Sanders.

A dancer all her life, she minored in ballet. But while at Loyola, her knees gave her serious problems.

A chance meeting at a Magazine Street gym with Lorelei Ashe changed her path. Ashe had just moved here from New York and was offering private lessons in circus skills. Sanders began training on the trapeze, taking her ballet skills onward and upward.

“Once I started I was hooked,” Sanders said. Plus, aerial training was much easier on her tortured knees.

But other obstacles emerged: She auditioned, unsuccessfully, for the Circus Center, a professional school in San Francisco. “It took me a long time to gain the upper body strength I needed,” Sanders said. “I had only been working with Lorelei for maybe three months. I couldn’t do a single pullup at that point.

“To get into circus school you need to have strength already so you don’t injure yourself. They said in a letter, ‘You look great but need to work on your strength.’ ”

Another year of work, and she was accepted. Halfway through her first year there, however, came another knee injury, suffered in the acrobatics portion of training that also included contortions, gymnastics, stretching and ballet. She didn’t quit, instead focusing on training that involved the upper body and core.

Sanders finished and landed a job at another circus before moving to Ringling Bros. as the human cannonball in January.

Her workout schedule is full despite performing seven or more times in a five-day workweek. “Days we perform, after the show I’ll stay and practice a little aerial or do conditioning. I definitely have to keep in shape.

“I usually take a day off for my body to heal. I will sleep a lot,” she said.

“And today, for example, I don’t have a show tonight so I’ll go for a jog, go to the gym, do some stretches. I do daily maintenance for my knees and some conditioning.”

In a schedule that has her off the road only about six weeks a year, her time in New Orleans will be special. Although she grew up in Alabama, Sanders said her mother lives here now, as well as an aunt and uncle and a cousin with children.

Her family was hesitant at first about her career choice, she said. “As any parent would be, they were concerned with my safety. … They are impressed. I still think it takes their breath away at times. And they’re happy that I’m happy in what I’m doing. This is my career, and they brag about it all the time.”

Contact Karen Taylor Gist at