Nik Wallenda has been “walking” on a high wire since before he was born. His mother, Delilah, was still performing on it when she was 6 months pregnant with him.
“It’s in the blood,” says Nik, a seventh-generation member of the Great Wallendas, who thrilled Depression-era circus audiences with a high wire act that featured a seven-person pyramid. “It’s something I grew up with,” he says of the high wire. “People say, ‘How do you get in the zone?’ It’s something I’ve done my entire life.”
For those who closed their eyes and held their breath as Nik became the first person to walk over Niagara Falls on a wire on June 15, 2012, contending with wind swells, thick mist and 600,000 gallons per second raging over Horseshoe Falls; for those whose hearts beat a little faster when he became the first person to cross the Grand Canyon on a wire on June, 23, 2013, confronting 48-mph gusts at a height of 1,500 feet — Nik wants you to know that his heart beats a little fast in these instances, too.
But courage is not the absence of fear. It’s the engagement of it.
“Look, I think you can overcome any fear if you put your mind to it,” says Nik, a philosophy he shares in his 2013 biography, “Balance: A Story of Faith, Family & Life on the Line.” “When I’m on the wire and hit with a gust of wind, I say to myself, ‘Well, you’ve battled 120-mile-an-hour winds.’ One of the challenges is that complacency can set in. It’s important to focus on what I’m doing.”
The key to that is preparation. Nik, 36, practices several hours a day three days a week on a wire that can be anywhere from 2 to 30 feet off the ground in the backyard of his Sarasota, Fla., home. He does some weightlifting for aesthetic effect but adds, “The best way to train for the wire is to walk on the wire.”
The other part of preparation is the rigging, particularly as he and his family are famous for not working with a safety net. (Though Nik did use a safety harness for the first time ever for the live ABC telecast of his Niagara Falls walk, which took two years to prepare.)
“My rigging team keeps me alive,” Nik says of a crew headed by his father, Terry, his safety coordinator, and his Uncle Mike, his lead engineer.
Their meticulousness is the other side of tragedy for a family that has its roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the 18th century. The Wallendas — led by Nik’s great-grandfather, the legendary Karl — were performing the seven-man pyramid in Detroit on Jan. 30, 1962, when the front man faltered and three men fell to the ground. Two family members — Dieter Schepp and Richard Faughnan — were killed. Karl’s son Mario, Nik’s great-uncle, was paralyzed. And Karl himself sustained a pelvic injury. But he went back to performing the next day. And Mario would return to the high wire in a specially rigged wheelchair.
“The show must go on” is the family motto, instilled by Karl, who died at age 73, falling to his death from a high wire in San Juan, Puerto Rico in March 1978, the result of faulty rigging. On June 4, 2011, Nik completed his great-grandfather’s last walk across a 135-foot-long wire strung between the two towers of the 10-story Condado Plaza Hilton.
“Of course, every walk he’s with me,” Nik says. “I’m pretty confident he’d be doing what I’m doing.”
What Nik is doing now is preparing for a 1,600-foot walk more than 100 feet in the air Aug. 11 at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee. He’s also looking at a walk in Abu Dhabi and between the Petronas Towers — the tallest twin towers in the world — in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
But Nik isn’t just a solo act. He’s in pre-production to create an intimate, European-style circus featuring his family that he hopes to launch and tour with next summer.
His wife, Erendira — whom Nik proposed to on bended knee on a high wire in Montreal in 1999 — is also circus royalty, an eighth-generation Ashton, the third oldest circus family in the world, and a seventh-generation Vazquez, trapeze artists who made quadruple somersault history.
Their three children — Yanni, Amadaos and Evita — have all trained on the wire. But Nik adds, “We have made it a point to keep them out of the spotlight until they decide.
“I started performing in front of an audience (as a tiny clown) at age 2. …I thought about being a pediatrician. My parents wanted me to do something other than perform. But we love what we do.”
Older son Yanni is going to become a Marine, his father says. But first he wants one performance on the high wire.
After the high-flying Wallendas, the Marines should be a snap.