Nick Wallenda is a cool, crazy dude. From a childhood circus performer to an adult daredevil and high wire artist, he has an impressive resume filled with stunts and walking across really scary things on a very tiny wire.
He holds 11 Guinness World Records for some of these feats, including probably his most major accomplishment of walking over top of Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and his longest walk over top of Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua.
As a child, he was a member of The Flying Wallendas where he was in many circus acts, and made his first professional tightrope debut at the age of 13. He has biked on tight ropes, walked on ferris wheels and even been involved in a human tightrope pyramid.
On June 23, 2013, 7 years ago today, he became the first person to high-wire across the Grand Canyon, which was aired on Discovery Channel.
He is married with 3 kids and is a devout Christian. His wife is also a performer, and their children have been involved in many of their performances.
BACKGROUND, EARLY & PERSONAL LIFE
Nik is a 7th-generation member of his aerialist family, The Flying Wallendas. His ancestors, of Austro-Hungarian descent, were circus performers since the 1700s, and balancing acts without nets have been a part of the Wallenda family since the 1920s.
Though being daredevils is in their blood, that doesn't mean they haven't lost anyone to the craft. Several members of the Wallenda family have died during training and performances, including 2 who died during a failed 7-person pyramid, and one who was paralyzed in the same accident. His great-grandfather, Karl, who was the first to balance without a net, died at age 73 in Puerto Rico after a tight rope fall.
Nik was born in Sarasota, Florida in 1979 to his parents Delilah and Terry. He began performing in the circus when he was extremely young, his first performance in 1981 at just 2 years old. He showed interest in the wire at that young age, crossing it while holding hands with his mom. He was able to let go of his mom's hand at around age 4. He and his sister, Lijana, would play around on his parents' practice wire that was 2 feet off the ground.
In what I can only describe as a questionable parenting decision, they would throw objects at him and even shot him with a BB gun to help train him to deal with distractions. Though this sentence lives between ages 4 and 6 in his lifetime chronology, I hope this was at least done when he was older and they weren't shooting a 5 year old with a BB gun.
When he visited Niagara Falls for the first time at age 6, he decided that he wanted to walk across it one day. Most of his youth was spent on the road as his parents performed across America.
Before getting into tightrope for the family circus, he acted as a clown, then began juggling, and even did a dog act. At 13, he made his tightrope walking debut. His parents encouraged him to go to college post-grad, as the live circus was losing popularity and it didn't seem like it was the time to make it as a performer. He was accepted into college and planned to become a doctor, but his love for the tightrope re-sparked when he was involved in a recreation of his great-grandfather's 7 person high-wire act.
In 1999, Nik proposed to Erendira Vasquez on a 30 foot high wire during a performance. Erendira was a member of a famous Mexican circus family. They married a week later, noting that neither of them could be without someone who didn't love to perform.
He credits God for his success, and grew up in a religious family. He believes that God has helped see him through and provided him the skills to be who he is, and gives all glory to God for his accomplishments. Before every walk, he and his family join in prayer. But, he does not see his stunts as "testing" God. He trains and practices and works incredibly hard to accomplish all he has, he just believes God has given him the platform.
He is a challenge-driven person, and being told he can't do something just makes him want to do it more. He doesn't just want to break records, but set himself apart from all records set before.
Nik and Erendira have 3 children, Yanni, 21, Amadaos, 18 and Evita, 15, who sometimes have performed in their parents' acts. However, the kids are free to choose their own professions. Evita is the most interested in following Nik's footsteps in the tightrope world, and just like her dad as a kid, loves walking across the 2-foot practice wire in the backyard. He is never without his family, the 6-day separation while he prepared for Niagara Falls was their longest time apart in their 9 year marriage.
A CRAZY, BUT AMAZING, CAREER
Nik has produced many large-scale performances for amusement parks or other venues around the country and abroad, often featuring his wife and children. He has done diving feats, incline motorcycle stunts, aerial silk, tightrope walking and more. He likes to mix it up, and despite doing some of the most insane stunts imaginable, says his worst injury in his life was a broken toe from football.
His father, who retired from acrobatics, is Nik's safety coordinator, and his brother, Mike, serves as his chief engineer. He always performs without a net or safety harness, as he says it is a false sense of security, and that his uncle died from falling even with a safety net. He does not believe he will die doing any of his stunts, but as an old man from natural causes.
He likes to explain that high-wire performance isn't exactly a daredevil stunt, but real athletic feat that requires extreme training. He sees a "stunt" more as someone going over Niagara in a barrel and hoping they don't hit anything dangerous, and his actions more of an art form. He trains for 6 hours a day, 6 days a week for any upcoming stunts, but still says that wire walking is primarily mental. He has been known to pepper in some tricks within his tricks, including taking phone calls, sitting or laying down while up on the wire.
He plans to retire at age 50, but for now, he has a pretty good gig. He landed a contract with Discovery Channel in 2013 and they now have an exclusive broadcast of his acts, and he makes millions, more than he ever imagined by just doing what he loves.
In 2001, after extreme training, he was a part of the first ever 8 person high-wire pyramid at Japan's Kurashiki Tivoli Park, landing him a Guinness World Record. From 2002-2005, he performed with his wife and children, touring the US as a part of various different circuses. One of his acts including riding a motorcycle across a 30-foot high wire. In 2006, he was a part of a McDonald's sponsorship where he and his sister walked across a tightrope and met in the middle for coffee. It went a bit awry after he stepped over his sister and the crane malfunctioned, preventing Lijana from getting off of the wire. However, she was eventually rescued.
After this, he started working towards more specific stunts.
The Wheel of Steel was one of his first, done in 2007 and 2008. He was performing with Bello Nock, and the 2 stood balanced atop twin circles 39 feet up in the air. It is kind of hard to explain what the wheel of steel actually is, and I can't say any of the pictures really help, but let's just say it was a cool feat and move on.
On October 15, 2008, on a live broadcast of Today, he completed his record-setting bicycle ride. He was supposed to walk and then bicycle off of the roof of the Prudential Center in downtown New Jersey across a suspended high-wire, 13 stories up. During the walk, he calmly phoned the Today hosts as a cool trick while sitting down, but had a tough time standing back up and wobbled a bit. Then, he crossed the high-wire on a bicycle, which also almost went awry. The back wheel started to slip, but he ultimately regained balance and finished it, clinching the world record for highest and longest high-wire bike ride.
In 2009, he began his Walk Across America Tour with Cedar Fair amusement parks, where he would perform different high-wire acts at amusement parks around the nation. At that point, he completed his highest walk at 262 feet above the ground at Kings Island in Ohio. He also completed his longest walk, at 25 minutes due to an unexpectedly greased wire and strong winds, at the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh.
During the tour, he completed 15 high-wire performances, all over 100 feet in 2009.
On August 30, 2010, he rode a bicycle 260 feet in the air overtop of the ocean, and then completed his longest walk, 2,000 feet, over the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort's marine habitat filled with barracudas, piranha and sharks. Between those 2 acts, which were both in the Bahamas, his father passed out from heat and stress, making his 2,000 foot walk the first he ever completed without his father watching.
In 2011, he completed a 100-foot walk between 2 towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the same act that his great grandfather Karl died during in 1978. His mother joined him for the act. His mother sat down during the walk, and Nik knelt to blow a kiss in honor of his great-grandfather who was his idol in life. He said it was an honor to walk in the same footsteps as Karl, but that it was one of the most emotional things he had ever done.
On June 10, 2011, he performed while hanging from a helicopter 250 feet above ground in Branson, Missouri. He hung by 2 arms, then 1 arm, then his legs, then just his teeth. (Excuse me, what?) He claims this was his most difficult feat, that the training was extreme and he dealt with neck problems for months afterward. In the next few months, he continued performing daily at Silver Dollar City in Missouri. For some of the performances, he had to pretend to be off balance to heighten the drama, which he claims was the hardest part.
On February 15, 2012, it got real when Nik received approval from Niagara Falls to walk overtop of the waterfall, his dream since he was a child. He would cross over the 260-foot river. It was a 2 year process to receive the approval, requiring a one-time exemption from the state's anti-stunting laws. Though New York was on board, Canada wasn't as excited and were vocally opposed to the plan, as they believed it would bring back all of the amateur daredevils who got injured and killed trying stunts at the falls. Finally, they approved it when they were able to determine a positive economic benefit from the stunt. Many meetings had to take place between both sides to prepare.
To prepare, he practiced in the parking lot of the Seneca Niagara Casino for 11 days straight. He had firetrucks spray him with high-powered water to simulate the conditions.
On June 15, 2002, tens of thousands gathered to watch the walk. On the Canadian side, the crowd was nearly 120,000 people. The walk would be the first time Nik had ever performed without guy wire stabilizers, and the wire was about 2 inches wider than what he typically used. The walk was held after dark so make it accessible to worldwide viewers, and he was hooked up to a microphone so he could talk to his father, while the public listened in.
The walk was 1,800 feet long and slippery. He claimed the view was beautiful and it was a "dream in the making". He said the first few steps were the hardest, as his brain maybe isn't quite as crazy as his body. Looking over the water, he said his mind asked "what are you doing?" However, he did not stumble at all and did not stop for any tricks, but did kneel toward the end to blow a kiss to the crowd. He got up, fist pumped, and ran the final few feet. It took him 25 minutes to complete. He had to carry his passport to present it when he landed on the Canadian side of the falls.
To his dismay, ABC required him to wear a safety harness, something that he was not happy about. He told his dad he "felt like a jackass" for wearing it, and while many people thought he would remove it part way through, he did not. He claimed he would only take it off if it began to become a hazard. He said he intended to take it off, but because he is a man of his word, he decided to keep it on. He also said it would have been selfish, because if he would have fallen and died, people would have been fired for his refusal to wear a harness. He said it was more difficult than he expected, but was so proud of himself and on cloud nine after completing his childhood dream. It was a huge hit on TV, breaking many records.
And, now what this article was actually about, the June 23, 2013 Grand Canyon Walk. He planned to walk across the Little Colorado River and broadcast the feat on the Discovery Channel. Permits were easier to attain for this walk than Niagara falls, actually receiving approval in 2008, but it kept getting delayed for logistical hurdles. He wanted to get something in writing that said he did not need a safety harness, and he came to an agreement with the Discovery Channel in March.
At a whopping 1,500 feet, it would be the highest walk of his career, 7 times higher than Niagara. At the beginning of the walk, the wire became slippery and he had to adjust quickly. He also had to stop and crouch down due to high winds, and had to stop a second time when the wire began to bounce due to his movement.
He could be heard continually praying during the walk and thanking Jesus. Like Niagara, he ran the last few steps. He jumped off of the wire and kissed the ground, finishing the walk in 22 minutes and 54 seconds, becoming the first person to high wire across the Grand Canyon. Also like Niagara, he said it was more difficult than he thought it would be. The walk saw 10.7 million viewers (I was one of them!) and it became the highest rated live program in Discovery's history.
Since then, he has walked between 2 towers in Chicago, set records for steepest tightrope incline and highest tightrope walk blindfolded, and has walked over top of the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua, his longest walk on the wire. His wife did an aerial performance over the volcano before his walk, and they both wore masks and goggles to protect from volcanic fumes.
Overall, Nik plans to achieve global recognition for his work. Still on his wish list for performances include the Bosphorus continental divide in Turkey and the Inca ruins at Machu Pichu, and perhaps some sort of event with the Eiffel Tower or the Egyptian Pyramids. He also hopes to develop some longer-term tourist attraction with Niagara Falls to honor stuntmen in his family.
I very clearly remember watching his walk over the Grand Canyon at my friend's house, absolutely on the edge of my seat. It is hard to imagine watching a man walk for 20+ minutes to be exciting, but as someone who has fallen down while taking a joke field sobriety test while entirely sober, I cannot imagine the balance it takes to walk on a tight rope across anything, really. He is so confident, calm and collected, and his feats are nothing short of amazing. I hope to see more Nik Wallenda performances throughout my life, and wish he and his really cool, if not a little crazy, family all of the best.