If you’re putting it into sports terms, Nik Wallenda is looking for a wire-to-wire victory Sunday night in Chicago.
By all true measurements, the 35-year-old high-wire wonder performs professional athletic feats of endurance, strength and agility on his game day. He just may trick you into thinking he’s got a dare-devil-may-care attitude, which is completely counter to his faith-based way of living and training.
He’s already done a live TV crossing over Niagara Falls in 2012, and then traversed 1,500 feet over the Grand Canyon in 2013. Wallenda’s latest multi-million-viewer challenge (Discovery Channel, 4 p.m.) starts with walking over the Chicago River on a 15-degree incline, the steepest angle he has ever tried. He estimates that will take about 12-to-15 minutes, depending on the Windy City winds and how long he really wants to enjoy the view. The second part is a blindfold walk, a two-to-three minute pace on a 100-foot wire that is some 500 feet high.
The last two TV performances were visually stunning, but lacked one interesting element that this one adds – a good ol’ crowd of folks below and in neighboring buildings able to cheer (or jeer) him on, as if he was at Wrigley Field. City officials have asked for complete cooperation from the spectators, including an ordinance not to have barbeques on the balcony while all this is going on.
“That’s no fun, I was going to stop by as many barbeques as I could on the way up,” Wallenda said. “There are all these restrictions about making noise, and such, and I appreciate that, but we’re in a city and I expect to hear sirens, and cars and crowds screaming.
“I get goose bumps thinking about the roar of the crowd. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. It’s not like I need complete silence. I’d probably be a bad golfer. I don’t know, I’ve never tried.”
Retiring to a life on the links someday isn’t in the Wallenda DNA. The seventh-generation acrobat who describes himself as an “Extreme Funambulist” on his Twitter account, doesn’t plan to be doing any social media while he’s above the Chicago skyline. Although, that added element of don’t-walk-and-text didn’t come up in our Q-and-A:
Q: Are safety nets over rated? In your line of work, and in general? What do you consider your safety net in life?
A: I’ve been walking on the wire since I was 2 and was trained without a net, harness or tether. Therefore undertaking this walk with a harness would actually be more dangerous for me than doing it the way I’m trained. I would definitely consider my ‘safety net’ my faith too. Faith is just another extension of my life, a huge part and probably the most important thing in my life. Most dear to me is my faith.
Q: What really makes you squeamish? Any certain carnival ride? Spiders?
A: Nothing really. Blood, but that doesn’t even make me squeamish. Broken bones, I guess?
Q: What are you most afraid of?
A: My wife. But she hates when I say that.
Q: What distracts you when you’re up there?
A: I’ve been stung by a bee on the wire before. I’ve had birds land on my balancing pole. Birds land on the wire all the time while I’m walking. They usually look at me funny like, ‘What are you doing up here?’
Q: Are zip-line rides fun for you or is that too pedestrian?
A: I love the zip-line. I recently went and had such a good time. The only thing is that I don’t follow the rules, given my background, and often get told off.
Q: Does caffeine make you jittery?
A: I don’t drink coffee.
Q: What happens if you’re up there and you get an itch?
A: Depends on where the itch is. Normally. I scratch it.
Q: So think about places in Southern California you’d be tempted to try to conquer next – the Santa Monica Pier, going over the Ferris wheel and above the Pacific Ocean? Across the top of Coliseum during a USC game? Over the 405 Freeway in rush hour traffic while sipping a latte? What kind of L.A. challenge would you be up for?
A: Anywhere, really. I love Southern California and my wife actually just asked that we do the next walk there … for the weather. Any of those places sound great.
Q: So can we add that to your bucket list?
A: It’s a really long bucket list, and my wife wants it to be a lot shorter. I think my focus after this walk is to recreate my great grandfather’s greatest walk – that was Tallulah Gorge State Park, in Georgia (before 30,000 spectators in 1970). He did the walk that was over 600 feet high and more than 1,200 feet long and did two handstands in the middle of it. I’m thinking that with technology – we have film of him doing that walk – we can figure out a way to do that walk ‘together.’ I just get chills thinking about it.
My great-grandfather Karl was and still is a huge inspiration in my life. He’s the one who paved the road for me to able to do what I do. He is not only the reason why I do what I do, but it’s to shine a light on him, not to outshine him.
He did lose his life walking between two skyscrapers (at age 73 in 1978, in Puerto Rico). Now I have since went back and recreated that exact walk that took his life. I did it alongside of my mother several years ago; I believe it was in 2010 or 2011. The reason he fell to the ground had nothing to do with the winds. It had to do with his strength. He didn’t have the physical ability to hold on to that wire anymore.
I look at these incredible athletes that do these amazing things and a lot of them will retire and come back, and they won’t be the same when they come back. I hope that I do know the right timing, but a lot of it has to do with whether I’m physically in that condition. When is the right time to stop?
== The New York Times: Is this risk over Chicago too risky for “live” TV?