Louisville’s Terri Kendall is an aerialist, flying above the crowd on silks or a rope. Even at 50, after an injury, she’s not letting her dream get away. It took her too long to get there. Thanks to
Terri Kendall turned 50 last year – which is kind of astounding, given how active and powerful an athlete the Louisville native still is.
But that’s not what this story is about.
Like many people who reach that age, Kendall discovered that 50 is just the number that follows 49.
What’s more pertinent, though, is the story of Kendall’s athletic life at the formation, when she was a preteen in suburban Chicago and showing an aptitude for soccer, softball, football, tumbling.
“I started playing softball at 11 and field hockey at 14, and I sort of really never stopped.”
It was another cultural era, however, and it nearly strangled her promising career.
It was the mid-to-late 1970s. There weren’t a lot of programs available for girl athletes. And not a lot of parents looking to encourage their daughters into the sports world.
“My parents wanted me to play music,” she said, “but I was a jock. I ran as fast as the guys, I played as well as the guys.
“I kept coming home, saying I want to try ice skating, I want to try gymnastics,” Kendall said. If any of her three brothers had shown any extraordinary athletic promise (they didn’t), “I’m sure my parents would have been all in.”
She recalled begging her parents for gymnastics lessons. (“I was super-acrobatic.”) They wouldn’t pay the $13 an hour. “But they were willing to pay $650 for my brother to learn karate.”
She said the minute her brothers wanted to play baseball, “they signed us all up – me for softball.”
A DIFFERENT TIME
This is not to shame Kendall’s parents. It was just a different time, not long after Title IX had been passed, and the culture was slow to change.
Boys = sports. Girls = music lessons.
“I tell the girls I coach (now), ‘You don’t know how lucky you are,’ ” said Kendall, who coached field hockey for 10 years in the Louisville school system, five of those years at DuPont Manual High School. “I say to them, ‘You have parents who drive you to practice. I used to have to take a bus or ride my bicycle or walk. You have parents who pay for you, support you.’ They pay hundreds of dollars for their daughters to play.”
Even after excelling in high school sports, despite attending three schools in three different states, Kendall ended up enrolling at Western State Connecticut University, a Division III school with no athletic scholarships.
And then she dabbled, finding every possible outlet for her abilities – softball, field hockey, soccer, football, running races, competing in triathlons, mountain biking, road biking, men’s lacrosse, men’s ice hockey, roller hockey – while turning her psychology degree into a career as a school psychologist with Jefferson County Public Schools.
She played well into her 40s, until her knees began to give out, as knees do when you’ve been as active as Kendall was for so many years.
THE CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN
And then it was February 2010, she recalled. “A friend of mine, who was already doing aerials, called me. ‘Hey, we’re doing a circus workshop, want to come?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not, I’ll give it a try.’ ”
She had always been a climber. “My mom said they couldn’t hide Christmas presents, because I’d find them.”
So, she scrambled up the rope, 15 or 20 feet in the air, and her life instantly changed.
“I looked out across the theater and I was happier than I’d ever been in my life. I thought I wanted to do this forever.”
She was performing by July.
Years of playing in front of crowds gave her the necessary stage presence. And she had the upper-body strength, which she said is usually a struggle for women. But she acknowledged that it took her five years to get polished.
“I cringe at early videos of myself. I was a jock, I never had dancing or gymnastics or cheerleading. I’m not a natural toe-pointer. I wasn’t used to straightening my knees. It took me awhile to perfect my eye gaze. I had to work very hard on how to pose with my hands. I’d always thrown balls with my hands, or held sticks. My hand changes were choppy and clunky.
“I had to transition from a jock to a graceful performer.”
Transition completed. She had become a major, accomplished, in-demand aerialist. And happy, fulfilled, satisfied. “If I’m grounded for a week, I feel crappy. I just want to be up in the air.”
Which was why the events of last year almost did her in.
SHOULDER AND OLDER
“I hurt myself overtraining a couple of tricks, and tore my labrum [cartilage that helps keep the ball of the shoulder socket in place].
“They call it an ‘overuse injury,’ ” she explained. “I had pain, but I kept pounding. I should have listened to my body.”
Surgery was contemplated. She hesitated. Would she recover enough to ever perform again? After all, she was about to turn 50.
“I had reached an advanced aerial stage,” she said, “one that I had been striving for, for years. So, the idea of taking a huge step back, or not coming back at all, was a lot to think about.
“I had a lot of questions, and a lot of tears. I hate to say it, but I don’t know who I am when I’m not being athletic.”
She said she read a lot of social media posts on the procedure. “There were many negative blogs. But there was one from a woman, a fanatical rock climber who trained, ate and was fit like me. She raved about the result, and that convinced me it would be okay.”
Dr. Ryan Krupp of Norton Orthopedic Specialists, performed a procedure called a bicep tenodesis, a procedure that involves cutting the biceps tendon from its attachment at the labrum and then reattaching it below that previous attachment site along the humerus bone
DARK TIME, DARK THOUGHTS
Medically, thanks to Dr. Krupp, the procedure was a success.
But emotionally, “I was a mess,” Kendall said. “It was a dark time. When you’re used to training hard and frequently, it’s natural that you’re going to drop when you stop. And I dropped really hard. I had thoughts I don’t normally have.”
She admitted now that she questioned what her usefulness was anymore and even not wanting to be alive.
“That’s not who I am. I’m a more positive person than that,” she recalled.
Kendall started taking a supplement to boost her serotonin – “an amino acid, not an antidepressant”
– and felt better after a week and a half. “I stayed on it until I started training, to get my biochemistry back to normal.”
Physically, Kendall still had some pain and range-of-motion issues, but two months of stretching and working out four times a day, plus physical therapy twice a week, have helped restore the future for her.
However, there’s still that magic number to deal with.
“When I turned 49, I woke up bawling. This year, I sort of laughed. Fifty? No way! The fact is, aerialists around the country perform into their 60s.”
Today, Kendall is grateful for where she is and what she has. She’ll retire from JCPS in five years. Her two daughters are doing great; the older one is getting married this year, and money’s not tight like it so often was.
Kendall has her own company, XALT, and also works with Louisville Turners Circus, Circus Mojo, Cirque Louis and Art After Dark Entertainment. She does fundraisers, company parties, picnics, festivals, and the occasional state or county fair.
Kendall also did a big ballroom party in a French Lick hotel this past New Year’s Eve.
THE TIMES, THEY HAVE A-CHANGED
Both of Kendall’s daughters showed some athletic ability. Kelsee, 24, played field hockey at Manual and just graduated from the University of Louisville. Nina, 14, plays soccer at Noe Middle School.
The girls are also getting into aerials. Is there a mother-daughter act in the future?
“Kelsee just started, so I’m not sure about her goals,” said Kendall. “She is working on building strength. She used to do gymnastics competitively, but that was over 10 years ago.”
However, she said, “Nina has been performing with me for a couple years and made really good money ¬¬– especially for a teen! We did some acts together, and we may do a duo act again someday – I hope.”
One thing is for sure. Terri Kendall is not going to let little things, like turning 50 and having shoulder surgery, deter her. She has worked too hard and fought too long for that moment when an audience gives her love – smiles and applauds, and appreciates her for what’s she’s doing up in the air. She’s not about to be grounded.