Teacher shares circus experience


Photo by Emily Wong

Michael Opsal currently teaches driver’s ed.

Holly Winiars, Staff Writer

Jaws drop to the floor. Crowds cheer with glee. In the midst of the room, a man, unfaltering, is doing a handstand…atop a thirty-foot-high stack of chairs. Unfathomable as it may sound, those same hands now instruct a student on the proper way to perform hand-over-hand steering. 

Before his time teaching vehicle safety with colorful magnets and enforcing the IPDE process, driver’s education teacher Michael Opsal was no stranger to perilous stunts.

Inspired by years of gymnastics during high school, Opsal sought a way to continue his passion for exercise during his time studying at Illinois State University. 

 “There was a circus fraternity, so I figured it was something to stay active and participate in,” Opsal said. “You have to be able to climb a rope, hold a handstand for a certain long period of time: all different kinds of things just to make it in.”

Opsal participated in a variety of acts, many of which included acrobatic skills, such as pyramid building and tightrope walking, among other feats. 

 “I would climb a rope about 30 feet in the air and I would – like monkey bars – put one leg over a bar with another bar for your ankle. I would hang up there upside down,” Opsal said. “I had a partner that I would swing, kind of like a flying trapeze.”

Although he no longer participates in the circus, Opsal still keeps in touch with his former coworkers via social media, cherishing the comradery. 

“The performing aspect wasn’t the same as competing in a gymnastics routine, but it was a family. I look at it as a gymnastics family,” Opsal said. 

The circus fraternity, Gamma Phi, was founded in 1926 as a part of ISU, being one of two circus fraternities in the United States. Within the program, traditional circus acts are performed, and alumni work with other North American circuses to perform for audiences. 

“It’s a fun thing to be involved in if you go to ISU, whether you’re gonna join it or go to watch the circus,” Opsal said. “You don’t even have to be a gymnast anymore, because there’s other acts that you can do without gymnastics abilities.”

Though his days of balancing women on his shoulders while he walked countless feet above the ground may have ceased, Opsal now incorporates his creative skills into assisting students with the proper way to balance the responsibilities of driving. 

“He tries to make things interesting with rock music as you walk into class, and folders you can draw all over and customize,” Allison Westlund, sophomore, said.