Everyone was on their feet, clapping and cheering when Christian Stoinev ’13 walked into the room.

But this time it was a middle school lunchroom rather than New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, and the audience just happened to be fifth and seventh graders who abandoned their lunch trays to surround the 22-year-old semifinalist on NBC’s America’s Got Talent.

The Gamma Phi Circus star was in Normal rehearsing for his next appearance Tuesday, September 2, but took time out to visit the Thomas Metcalf School and a broadcasting class in Fell Hall, where he was embraced by former classmates.

Stoinev returned to campus to practice because he felt more comfortable on the mats in Horton Field House than in a gym closer to his Florida home. Although he couldn’t give any hints as to what he’ll do during the next round of the variety show, his hand balancing brought 6,000 people to their feet during his last appearance August 12. Stoinev balances his 180-pound frame on one finger stuck in a wine bottle but his 11-year-old Chihuahua, Scooby, got in on the act.

Stoinev is billed by NBC as the “shirtless hand balancer” after shedding his jacket during an early audition. “I didn’t expect to get that reaction,” he said, smiling. “When the crowd went crazy, I actually laughed out loud. I got so relaxed after that.”

Christian Stoinev during his "America's Got Talent" audition

Illinois State alum Christian Stoinev during his “America’s Got Talent” audition. (Adam Taylor/NBC)

The fifth-generation circus performer first auditioned on AGT in 2007 when he was only 14. But he had to perform without Scooby, who was suffering from a bite two days earlier. There are two reasons he tried out again; he was tempted by the $1 million prize, and he wants to promote awareness of the circus.

“Every university has a basketball team or football team but not every university has a circus program, and I was hoping my advancing would let people know ISU has this very unique program,” he said.

When Howard Stern, one of the four judges, told him he made it to the semifinals, “it was easily the best moment of my life,” Stoinev said. The night before, the pressure had been so intense he had trouble sleeping and that day, he battled a churning stomach. Stern told him the show wanted the best—and he was the best. That’s when the tears formed, and those emotions returned as Stoinev watched the clip with his former broadcast journalism classmates.

“Hey, if I start crying, I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s been a big year for me.”

His performance at Radio City wasn’t his first standing ovation—that happened in Redbird Arena as a freshman with Gamma Phi.

“That was one of the most special performances of my life,” he said. “Those moments don’t come around often and when they do, they mean a lot.”

Stoinev doesn’t ask viewers to vote for him, even though that’s how performers advance to the finals. Instead, he asks viewers to vote for the best.

“Don’t just vote for me because I went to ISU or because you know me. Everybody on the show is chasing their dream. Vote for me because you think I deserve to make it through,” he said.

Check out Illinois State magazine’s 2011 feature story about Stoinev.

Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu. Bob Tomaski can be reached at rdtomas@IllinoisState.edu.