Nik Wallenda, "The King of the Highwire"
Nik Wallenda, "The King of the Highwire" is back at it again. This time, he is heading to the historic "Windy City" of Chicago to attempt his most audacious and challenging tightrope walk yet. And like the legendary Wallenda family tradition, he will do it all without a net or harness.
"SKYSCRAPER LIVE WITH NIK WALLENDA" will air live around the world in over 220 countries beginning at 7 PM ET/4 PM PT, Sunday, November 2 on the Discovery Channel. The live event will be hosted by NBC News' Willie Geist, Natalie Morales and The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore.
Wallenda will be joined in Chicago by his wife and three children, his close friends and an engineering team led by his father Terry Troffer. "I'm always looking for the next major hurdle and doing something that the world has never seen," – said Wallenda. – "I want my family to be there to see history in the making. And feel comforted knowing that they'll be praying along with me."
SKYSCRAPER LIVE WITH NIK WALLENDA is produced by Peacock Productions for Discovery with Gretchen Eisele, Colleen Halpin, Knute Walker, Benjamin Ringe and Betsy Wagner serving as executive producers.
The 35-year-old aerialist has clocked eight world records, from hanging by his teeth under a helicopter to walking over Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon to bicycling on a wire over the streets of New Jersey. In anticipation of his grand Chicago sky walk, we publishing interview of Discovery Channel with Nic Wallenda.
- I know that your faith plays a really big role in your training, as well as how you get through the challenge. Do you want to talk a little bit about the role that that plays in your preparation?
Nik: Absolutely. My faith plays a huge role in my life, whether I’m walking wire or not, so on and off the wire, but it’s really where I find my strength and it’s how I stay calm when I’m doing stuff like this. Whenever I am in any situation that is stressful, whether it be dealing with one of my teenaged kids or walking a wire, I always count on my faith to get me through that, and walking wire is the same thing. It’s just another aspect of my life. It’s hard for those who weren’t raised in my family to understand, but my great-grandfather said life is on the wire and everything else is just waiting. For our family, walking wire is life, and it is a normal thing for us to do.
I have 15 family members that currently walk the wire, including my three kids. 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.
- Your great-grandfather who you mentioned, I guess you never got to know him. He died in 1978.
That’s correct and I was born in ’79.
- Yes, and he was doing a walk similar to this I guess. Does that make it more special to you and significant? How did you relate to this larger than life person who you never really knew?
My great-grandfather, Karl, was a huge inspiration, is a huge inspiration in my life, probably the biggest. I do everything I do because of him. He’s the one who paved the road for me to able to do what I do, and he did lose his life walking between two skyscrapers. 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, went back and recreated that exact walk. But he is a huge inspiration to me for sure and somebody that I believe, again, it really is the reason why I do what I do is because of him and not to outshine him, but to shine a light on him.
The Chicago walk really came about because I was attracted to the title of Chicago, which is the Windy City. You would think most wire walkers would want to have nothing to do with that, but for me it was actually attractive. I enjoy challenging myself. I enjoy pushing myself to the next level, and the Windy City title again was just extremely attractive to me.
- I wanted to know what is the maximum wind speed you ever faced, and what are you expecting in Chicago?
I’ve walked a wire in winds of 120 miles an hour during training in a safe environment. I consistently train in about 70 to 90 mile an hour winds, and I will be walking in Chicago, it’s hard to say what the winds will be. Obviously none of us control the weather; we’re not in charge of Mother Nature, but if the winds were to exceed 50 miles an hour, I would not step foot on that wire. We would hold off until the wind speeds would settle down some.
- Nik, speaking of the weather, obviously you train in a very different climate down in Sarasota versus what you will face in Chicago. How do you account for that in your training?
I’ve walked the wire since I was two years old, so I definitely know how to walk the wire. I’m very comfortable in somewhat extreme conditions. While I was crossing over the Grand Canyon, I got hit with 48 mile an hour winds. Of course Niagara Falls were up there, as well as extreme humidity to the point where visibility was very limited, so really specific training for Chicago isn’t so much about the wind. It’s more about the rigging. If the rigging is done right, I know I have the ability to walk through strong winds. We do some wind testing as well and consistently throughout my training I’m always training in wind, but really the rigging is what changes at every walk. And as long as that wire is stable under my feet, I am confident that I can make it across. I’m also confident in the fact that if something were to happen to me, I can always go down and grab that wire and hold on.
Of course we all know the story of my great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, in 1978 walking between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico where he had to go down to that wire to grab on and fell to the ground and lost his life. The reason why my great-grandfather fell to the ground was nothing to do with winds. It had to do with his strength. He was 73 years old and didn’t have the physical ability to hold on to that wire anymore.
- So obviously you’re doing the two parts of the walk and you introduced the blindfold element to it. Is that something new, or is that something you always wanted to do, or decided to add that?
The blindfold was really about challenging myself, including the incline. I’ll be walking up a 15° incline; actually it’s almost 16° we’ve learned in training. Again, that’s what training in Sarasota is about, we figure this stuff out and realize that it’s going to be a little steeper than we might have thought, but it’s really about challenging myself.
The blindfold idea came to me because I had Lasik surgery last year and it was the best thing I ever did. I can see incredible, but as I thought about that, I thought I wonder what would happen if I lost my vision, would I have to retire, would I not able to perform anymore. I had a great aunt who had cancer and she had her leg removed and had a prosthetic leg put on and continued to perform until she passed away.
I live by three words, never give up, and continue to inspire others to never give up, then I have to continue to push myself. If I want them to push themselves, I have to be an example, and that’s really what it all came down to was Chicago is exciting. Skyscrapers are exciting, but how can I push myself? My first thought was I can walk at an incline uphill the entire walk, which is changing everything. It changes the entire dynamics of wire walking. It’s much more strenuous. It is much more of a challenge.
And then as I was there, I thought it would be cool to do another walk and do it between three skyscrapers rather than just two and do the next leg blindfolded and that’s what we ended up deciding on doing.
- I’m fascinated by the idea of how many Wallendas have gone into the business and just by obstacles as you mentioned. I’m wondering how many decide not to. Does it ever come down where you counsel people in your family on their misgivings maybe it’s not for them, they think it might a little bit crazy?
Everybody in our family tries it. As I said I have three children. I have a 16 year old, a 13 and 11 year old. All of them walk the wire. None of my kids show any interest in carrying it on, but they all are very good on the wire. At this point they’re all saying they want to go to college and go in a different direction and as a father, I am extremely supportive of that and proud of them for making their own decisions. That’s really what it was about for me as well. As a matter of fact my parents if anything encouraged me to step away from the wire and go into a different business, but I was so attracted to it, that I couldn’t step away. I wanted to be a part of it.
But there are family members that do move on, some that don’t walk the wire and others that have walked the wire for years and then decide I don’t want to do this anymore. I had a great uncle for instance that was there when the seven person pyramid fell in 1962 in Detroit, Michigan; and when that pyramid fell, he was the only one that remained standing on the wire.
He saw two family members fall to their death and one paralyzed. He went back about three months later and they started rehearsing that again in Florida down low about ten feet off the ground; and as they were rehearsing, the wire slipped and everybody fell off the wire, including himself and he lost all of his teeth, hit his jaw on the wire and knocked out his teeth.
And at that point he said I’m never going to it again, and he moved on and became a schoolteacher. So some of us decided at a young age, and then others of us move on later on in life.
- And just one follow-up, what will your family be doing during the walk? Are they going to come watch you, and are you planning on calling your wife?
They’ll probably be playing video games when it comes to my kids, but they will all be there. They’ll all be watching, and they all are huge supporters of what I do. If they weren’t there, it would be more of a challenge for me. I need their support and part of my training, my wife is one of those that comes up when I’m blindfolded and pushes me or hits my balancing pole or shakes that wire because she wants to be confident that I’ll make it across to the other side.
My kids would freak out if they couldn’t be there they would think there was something really, really wrong. They have been at every one of my walks, every event that I’ve ever done and because of that, it’s something that is normal. It’s life to them; it’s what Dad does. Often when I’m doing these walks, they are playing video games, or maybe not video games, but texting their friends, or goofing off, because it’s what Dad does. And ever since they’ve been in a stroller, they’ve seen Dad do it, so it is life.
- Have you ever considered challenging yourself in any international locations?
I absolutely have. There are different locations around the world that I’ve looked at that I am currently looking at and would love to go international. I would love to do something in London. I would love to do something in Sydney. There are a couple places in Dubai, but really all over the world. I would love to do something in Germany that’s where my family originated and came over to the United States from in 1928. So there definitely is a lot of international locations that I’m looking at; and there’s just a lot of challenges of course funding, it’s very expensive to make these events happen safely and effectively.
Everything that goes into it from public safety from the spectators all the way to rigging the wire, so all of that comes into play, but I’m hoping to be able to do some international stuff very soon.
- Do you also enjoy every day experiences such as hobbies or family life or anything not having to do with walking a cord?
- I do. I would say my biggest hobby in life is spending time with my kids and my family. I absolutely love and enjoy spending time with them, playing sports. Me and my boys play football very often and other sports as well and really just spending time with them doing everything from that normal families do from going to the movies to playing mini-golf to anything else. I’m very much a family man.
I think one of the blessings of doing what I do, which is clearly a dangerous job is I live every day like it’s my last, and it makes you appreciate your family so much more. I think often in life we get to the point where we don’t appreciate our families because we just expect them to be there the next day. And because of the lifestyle that I live, I truly appreciate and cherish every moment that I have with them, so I do have many, many hobbies. I would say my favorite pastime is playing football. It is something that I thoroughly enjoy. I did it in high school and continue to do it not in a really competitive level, but with friends and family.
- How do you prepare physically, but mostly mentally to do this kind of thing?
The physical preparation I spend time in the gym of course every morning for about an hour, which is cardio, as well as some weight training; and then I spend time on the wire. I spend a lot of time four to five hours a day on a high wire just training, walking, walking, getting more comfortable, more familiar with it, walking in wet conditions as I did this morning in a pouring down rain, windy conditions. We had about 30, 35 mile an hour winds this morning in training.
My great-grandfather lost his life because the wire was rigged improperly. Because it was stabilized improperly, it moved under his feet and he was forced to go down to the safety of the wire, which is what we’re all taught from children is if there’s a problem, you go down and you grab that wire. My great-grandfather did everything right, but he didn’t have the strength to hold on, but it really came down to the rigging is the reason why he had to go down to that wire in the first place. It had nothing to do with wind, which is what everybody said. It actually had to do with that rigging.
So my training, my mental prep, all of that stuff isn’t just training for me, but it’s training for my riggers, for my crew, and then the mental training of knowing once I get on this wire, it’s going to be pretty stable in the middle because you’ve been on a wire that’s rigged identical to this.
- You were saying about how your family died, but what does your kids tell you about this jump? They are afraid of losing you? Any of your guys have the interest of doing the same as you?
None of my children they are all great on the wire. None of them at this point all of them say they want to go—one of them wants to be a doctor. One of them wants to be a physicist and one of them wants to be a veterinarian at this point, but they’re still young. My 15 year old I think he’s got his mind set up on going to college. The other two are fairly young, but they’re very supportive of what I do.
Again, to them it’s what their father has done their entire life. It’s not as though after my kids were 15 years they said hey, I’m going to go start walking wires. It’s something they’ve seen me do for their entire lives, so because of that it’s very normal to them. It’s not something abnormal. It’s what Dad does often.
- Why did you decide that your family to be there during the act? It doesn’t make you nervous or more nervous about it?
No, no, not at all, if anything it makes me more comfortable and relaxed to have my family there to support me. What I do is definitely dangerous, but it’s something that I’ve trained for my entire life, so I’m very comfortable at what I do and my family is very comfortable watching me do what I do. So again, it’s not as if somebody who just started doing this yesterday gets on the wire and the family is watching and they’re nervous. It’s just something that this is an art that my family has trained for for 200 years, so it is something that is very normal for my family to see, and they’re very comfortable watching.
- And what about the future, do you have an idea?
I don’t know. I own several other businesses right now outside of what I do that’s all in the private side of my life that I manage and that I run, so I do have a lot going on besides just performing. This isn’t my only occupation if you will. I see the wire walking as being my life, the other ones are my job.