Life On The Wire

AN INTERVIEW by Andrew Elias

NIKOLAS 'NIK' WALLENDA is the 31-year-old great-grandson of Karl Wallenda, founder of the world-famous ‘Flying Wallendas’. Born and raised in Sarasota, Nik holds the world record for the longest and highest bicycle ride on a highwire — 13 1/2 stories above downtown Newark, New Jersey — accomplished during a live broadcast of the Today show.

Nik will be one of the featured performers when Circus Sarasota performs at the Gulf Coast Town Center in Estero, March 12-28.

He was nice enough to take some time between performances in Sarasota to answer a few questions.

For most people, following in their family’s footsteps does not include walking the high wire. When did you decide to join the circus? Did you ever consider becoming a lawyer or an architect or a painter?

I began walking the wire when I was two years old. As I became an adult at age 18, I made the decision to follow in my family’s footsteps. My parents were fully supportive of whatever I wanted to do so I started college and wanted to become a pediatrician. Then I was asked to go to Detroit to be part of the Seven Person Chair Pyramid for first time since it fell in 1962. I went to Detroit and I was looking down the side of an alley that had nothing but satellite trucks and at that moment I realized what the family name meant and that I had to keep it going.

Explain what performing the amazing ‘Seven Person Chair Pyramid’ entails?

The biggest challenge is that my life is entrusted in six other person’s hands and vice versa. If one goes down it is often tragic for the rest. In 1962, when my family fell, two died and one was paralyzed. There is more stress with the Pyramid because each performer is trusting in the others’ skills

Is there pressure on you to be carrying on one of the greatest names in circus history — the Wallendas?

There is pressure, but no parental pressure, no family pressure. My parents supported me in whatever my desires were. I think the pressure comes from myself. There are a lot of challenges in carrying on this legacy — really carrying on something grand. There’s pressure to do more and better and living up to the family legacy and what they have created. When I went to walk in Cincinnati [Nik walked on a tightrope 262 feet above Kings Island Amusement Park in August 2009] I couldn’t only recreate what Karl Wallenda did — I had to go bigger and do more!

How does one start preparing to perform on a high wire? What is the process to get to be able to perform at such great heights?

I started training two feet off the ground, playing and having fun, as a child. Once I showed more interest and took it more seriously, then I was taught the proper way to walk the wire.

I picked it up very quickly. I’m blessed to have it come naturally. The first time on a bike on the wire – I rode across it. This is in my blood.

Like with anything though, it takes dedication, working hard at it, from the back yard to the ring.

What is your routine before performances?

Before a performance or a walk I say a prayer with the whole troupe. I have no specific routine. I stretch, but no ritual of any sort. But I am always praying.

How do you stay in shape physically and mentally sharp during the off-season?

I don’t really have an off-season. I’m always on call to perform. I do work out at the gym. I train five or six days a week. I do keep mentally focused and pray a lot as well.

You hold the record for the longest distance and greatest height ever traveled by bicycle on a high wire. What are you thinking about when you are up there?

I concentrate only on what I’m doing. If we can do it down low, we can do it anywhere. So it’s a matter of convincing yourself that you can do it anywhere. It doesn’t matter that we are so far up.

Any plans to perform at greater heights or longer distances on the high wire?

I’m always wanting to do more at greater heights and longer distances. Our motto is: ‘The sky is the limit…but not for us.’ I hold permits to walk across the Grand Canyon. I’m working on obtaining permits for Niagara Falls, but it takes a lot of planning in advance. If I have the opportunity I’d like to break every record on the highwire. The challenge of what I do is the cost behind it. If I won $100 million in the lottery I’d be breaking records every day. I have a passion for walking a wire.

The Grand Canyon is a dream of mine — something I look forward to.

If you weren’t in the circus - what would you be doing?

If I was not performing in the circus or carrying on Wallenda name I would definitely be doing something with children. I have three children of my own.

Why do you think that circuses are so popular and enduring?

I think that it is something for children of all ages – not too complex for children and not too simple for adults. Everyone can relate to it. It brings out the child in everyone.

Circus performing, and entertaining, is your job. What do you do for entertainment?

As my great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda said: “Life is on the wire and everything else is just waiting.”

Walking the wire is what I love to do, but I love spending time with my kids. Otherwise I love the wire. •

from the March-April 2010 issue

Nik performed his SkyWalk
200 feet above Sarasota
a few weeks ago.