“I got into gymnastics late,” said Dustin Walston, explaining just how almost unbelievable it is that he’s touring the country with Cirque du Soleil’s Toruk: The First Flight.

“Usually, people start gymnastics so much earlier. I was a teenager,” he said.

Coincidentally, it was a television performance of a Cirque du Soleil show that made Walston think, “I want to do that.” So, he began teaching himself tumbling in his backyard.

“At one point, my dad said, ‘Hey, you’re getting really good at that.’ So, we found a gym in Marshall, Texas, where I could get instruction. I just took off like a rocket.”

Walston got his first job at that gym when he was 16 and spent more than four hours every day practicing. He got better and better and later made the organization’s club gymnastics team.

The Longview, Texas, native was on his way, but he had no way of knowing just how far he’d go. He came to SFA as an international business major and Spirit Team member. With dreams to see the world, Walston took French classes and continued his gymnastic pursuits, parlaying his abilities onto SFA’s cheerleading squad.

“I’m a tumbler,” Walston explained. “We (the cheerleaders) would spend the first semester of the year cheering at games, and then the second semester in competition mode.”

While at SFA, Walston helped take the team to multiple National Cheerleaders Association Collegiate Cheer National Championship competitions. The group brought home titles in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006.

“It was amazing to win,” Walston said. “I was so happy to be part of such a great team of strong competitors. When you work together like that, you become like bricks in a wall for each other, and you’re such good friends.”

That idea of bricks in the wall serving as a foundation is how he feels about SFA, as well. He credits his time as a Lumberjack with helping him formulate a world view and learning more about the things he wanted to do in life.

Following his SFA graduation, Walston received a scholarship to attend Hawaii Pacific University. He said that experience gave him a taste of what “international” really meant. Hawaii’s diverse population, as well as its place geographically in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, attracted students from around the world.

“Sometimes, I was the only American in my class,” he said.

As he studied in Hawaii, Walston learned the value of cross-cultural communication and realized there are different approaches to challenges. After he completed his Master of Business Administration in 2009, he went to work for Chaminade University in Honolulu, overseeing the development of strategic planning and special projects for a Department of Defense-funded initiative.

“I was still tumbling every weekend,” he said. “I had it in my heart that I would perform someday, somehow.”

That “somehow” came by chance. He learned Cirque du Soleil was accepting audition tapes, and he and a friend spent a few days traveling around the island videotaping Walston completing every gymnastic move he had in his arsenal. He submitted the video in the summer of 2009.

“They invited me to audition in Las Vegas,” he said. “And it was two days and five rounds of cutting 120 people to only 11. I was one of the 11.”

Walston said when Cirque du Soleil accepts a performer, the performer is entered into its database, and if a part develops that fits the performer, he or she is called. So, while Walston was elated to be “in” with Cirque du Soleil, he knew it was only a toe in the door.

“In 2010, I moved to Las Vegas,” he said, intent on pursuing his dream to perform. His first opportunity came in the spring working as a performer with iL Circo, a Cirque-like troupe, traveling to Mexico, Venezuela and Greece. Two years later, he was a stunt pirate in The Sirens of Treasure Island, the pirate-themed show performed multiple times each day at the famed Treasure Island Las Vegas casino and resort. In 2013, he did body double work for Criss Angel in Cirque du Soleil’s Believe.

In winter 2015, Walston got his biggest break.

“When I got the call for Toruk, I really couldn’t believe it. If you had asked me what I wanted to do, the idea that I could create a role in a world-touring production of a Cirque du Soleil show — it was like winning a jackpot.”

Toruk: The First Flight is based on the blockbuster James Cameron film Avatar with the action taking place 1,000 years before that depicted in the movie. A natural catastrophe threatens to destroy the Na’avis’ sacred Tree of Souls, and two boys on the cusp of adulthood embark on a quest to save their people from a terrible fate.

Walston and his cast members spent 12 hours a day, six days a week crafting characters and rehearsing before the show opened in December 2015. In 2016, the production came to Texas, and Walston said it was fantastic to have so many friends and family attend.

“Texans love to see Texans succeed, and knowing friends and family are coming to see and support the work I do — that makes the show so much better,” he said.

One of his favorite things about being in Toruk, however, is more personal.

“I love it when I am in the arena during a scene positioned to the side, and I see the show unfolding before me. I feel like I have a front-row seat to such an immense and colorful adventure,” Walston said. “Cirque du Soleil is an amazing company to work for with a rich collection of talented employees.

“Therefore, it’s easy for me to say I love what I do. I also have to give credit to SFA for providing me with the necessary experiences to be successful in such a big endeavor.”