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Elliana Grace Hentoff-Killian grew up in the circus.
She made her circus debut at age 2 and mastered her first circus act at 6, when she learned the Spanish web — an aerial act performed on a rope. Now, at 20, she is currently the youngest female human cannonball in the world.
"I never thought I was going to be doing the cannon. I was always the one sitting there saying, 'You've got to be insane to get shot out of a cannon,' " she tells NPR's Celeste Headlee. "And, of course, that's what I'm doing now."
She is on tour with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show Built to Amaze! The cannon she uses is about 24 feet long.
"I go all the way down to the bottom of the barrel, and then I shoot about 100 feet across all three rings and land in an air bag," she explains.
"I line the air bag up in relation to the cannon. So wherever it ends up shooting down, then the air bag is moved."
She says she travels about 65 mph, experiencing a G-force of seven, about the same as an astronaut re-entering the atmosphere.
On her first time out of the cannon, she was so scared and sore that she didn't want to do it again.
"My mom was there for my very first shot, and I think she was pretty terrified and extraordinarily worried, because I'm her only daughter and her oldest child," Hentoff-Killian says. "So it's one of those things. But, you know, they just want me to be happy and this makes me happy, so why not?"
On her second day, she had her first "good shot" and was hooked after that.
Hentoff-Killian grew up in St. Louis, Mo. Her mother, Jessica Hentoff, is a former circus performer and founder of the school Circus Harmony.
"I just went to circus school instead of real school and was home-schooled," she says. "I always knew that I would end up somewhere, and here I am on the greatest show on Earth, so I couldn't ask for more."
Hentoff-Killian deferred her entry to Columbia College after she was accepted to go to circus school in Quebec. She considered returning to college after continuing her circus education, but then she heard about the opportunity with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
"To do the circus you have to have a fit body, and younger is better. So I decided that I could go to college later, and I wanted to pursue my dreams first."
She does hope to return to college eventually and wants to study American Sign Language.
"I love performing, and to perform on Ringling and be shot out of a cannon, it's kind of a lot more fun than college might seem. So it's hard to imagine going back," she says.
Hentoff-Killian says she understands the huge risks involved in the act. Growing up in the circus, she has a great trust and appreciation for the training and care that goes into the performances.
"Somebody before you has probably done it, so it is relatively safe, as strange as that might sound," she says. "I feel better getting shot out of a cannon than, say, riding a roller coaster."
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