He has hung by his jaw from a helicopter without a safety net. He holds a Guinness World Record for the longest bicycle ride on a tightrope. And this summer, he plans to make history by walking on a tightrope across the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ont.
“It’s a lifestyle, and if you don’t understand it …” Nik Wallenda says, trailing off. You can almost see the daredevil’s head shake slightly in chagrin over the wire – the telephone kind – from Sarasota, Fla., where he lives in the Circus Capital of the World.
“There are 14 of us in the family who perform on the wire, and there are many more who walk on it just because it’s our passion … My grandmother is 82, and she still walks the wire. Not in a performance, but in the backyard.
“I just finished practising,” he says, slightly breathless. His three kids walk the wire, too, but have yet to express any professional interest in performing publicly. The backyard with the wire strung up in it, two feet off the ground, is on his parents’ property, which is not far from his own. In the Flying Wallendas family, it’s their version of the television set – what the clan gathers around for fun and relaxation.
“It’s peaceful. It’s relaxing. It’s thrilling. It’s exciting,” explains the star of the upcoming Discovery Channel documentary series, Life on a Wire, which makes its Canadian debut this summer . “You have to know the life.” His voice is cool, slightly detached. Sangfroid is his greatest characteristic.
The seventh-generation funambulist was determined to take the family legacy to new heights and lengths and hand-over-mouth levels of entertainment by walking a tightrope across the Horseshoe Falls this summer. He refused to give in to the naysayers, and in the process was able to overturn a 128-year-old law prohibiting stunts in the area. On the day, “I will look down at the falls,” he says calmly. “To be scared is debilitating. It makes it much more dangerous.”
Such is his devotion to his art, he even proposed to his wife, Erendira, on the wire – the tightrope kind. It was in Montreal 12 years ago, up in the air (without a safety net), after family members had performed their signature stunt – a seven-person pyramid on a tightrope – when he got down on bended knee, as one of his uncles, who was working as a clown, hauled his beloved out of the audience. Luckily, she came from a family that goes back eight generations in the circus business. She thought the stunt was cute. Now she walks the wire, too.
He has been walking the wire since he was 2 and first performed at 13 with his parents. At 18, he knew his future. In his last year of high school, he was performing the seven-person pyramid. “It was either go to college and be a pediatrician, or carry on the legacy.” He decided on the latter. The family had started out in the circus world in the late 1790s in Bohemia as animal trainers and flying-trapeze artists. But it was Karl Wallenda, his great-grandfather, who ushered in worldwide fame when he began tightrope walking with Barnum & Bailey after the family immigrated to America in the 1920s.
There has been glory, but there has been tragedy too. The troupe’s history is marked with horrible mishaps that Mr. Wallenda has worked hard to redress. In 1978, the year before he was born, Karl Wallenda fell to his death at age 73 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, because he wasn’t strong enough to hold onto the wire when it became unstable. Last year, Mr. Wallenda re-created the walk in the exact location. In 1962, the troupe’s seven-person pyramid collapsed on the tightrope, sending two men crashing to their death.
“I have often heard that I have the same drive as Karl …The two generations [after him]performed, but really in the shadows of Karl Wallenda.” The adage he lives by is that of his great-grandfather: “Life is on the wire and everything else is just waiting.”
The family learned a lot from the tragedies, he explains. They now set strict engineering protocols for the rigging. And they train extensively. Mr. Wallenda’s fitness routine includes an eight-kilometre, wire-walking and weight-training five days a week, and every day when a big performance is coming up. At 5-foot-11, he doesn’t have the body type people expect. “People always say they think I would be smaller,” he says.
The Discovery Channel plans to televise the upcoming Niagara Falls event live for an estimated worldwide audience of 400 million. The attempt “is illegal for everyone in the world except for Nik Wallenda!” he says, with a rare show of unbalanced emotion as the excitement tilts the even tone of his voice.
The American side got behind his Niagara stunt almost immediately. Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, signed a bill last September after Mr. Wallenda’s proposal passed the New York Senate and New York State Assembly. And then, in a stunning about-face, the Canadian Niagara Park Commission changed its mind in February this year after an initial refusal. Michael Chan, Ontario Minister of Tourism and Culture, reconsidered after taking another look at the economic study Mr. Wallenda commissioned showing the event would bring $120-million to the area over the next five years. The study calculated what it called the “legacy effect” of such a television event.
The proposal considered everything – safety for visitors, safety for him, the decision to rig the wire at night so as not to interfere with the lucrative tours of the Maid of the Mist. “I am a perfectionist. If you’re going to do something, you do it to the best of your ability.
“I don’t want to come across as bragging,” he adds quickly, recouping his equilibrium. “It’s not as though I’m getting up there and saying, ‘Oh, here we go. I’m a daredevil and I wonder if I will live going over the falls in a barrel!’ It’s not like that. This is a science and an art. I’ve been training for so long. And there’s mental training. I almost consider it cheating. I’ll know the worst case I will experience way before I get there.”
The 550-metre walk on cable strung 61 metres high, between Goat Island in New York to Table Rock in Ontario, will take 35 to 40 minutes to complete. He will practise in rain, in mist, in wind at an undisclosed location. He will be prepared for anything.
We’ve been on the telephone wire for 45 minutes, but now he has to get off. In a few hours, his daughter is having her ninth birthday party, and he must get himself to the hospital, where his cousin is about to have a baby.
Mr. Wallenda maintains a carefully balanced life. He walks in the sky, but he’s very down-to-earth.