Nik Wallenda: King of the High Wire
On June 15, 2012, high wire artist Nik Wallenda joined the ranks of legendary daredevils when he became the first person ever to walk across the roaring Niagara Falls on a two-inch steel wire. The historic event was broadcast live by ABC to an audience reaching 13.3 million Americans, garnering the highest rating for a non-sports broadcast of any network in six years.
The heart-pounding event took two years of strategic planning which included geological surveys, engineering feats and political lobbying of U.S. and Canadian officials to change laws in both countries that, for the past 116 years, banned daredevil stunts at Niagara Falls. Prior to the ban, other wire walkers had crossed the Niagara River including one who lost his life, but no one until Nik Wallenda had ever attempted to cross Horseshoe Falls, 200 feet up and 1550 feet across, where the raging waters rush downward at more than 600,000 gallons per second.
After battling wind swells and dangerously thick mist, Wallenda completed his walk in just 25 minutes during which viewers could hear his repetition of prayers. In one truly electrifying moment as he approached the Canadian side on the wire he paused, then bowed to the crowd on bended knee raising a victory fist to acknowledge over 120,000 cheering fans who had waited for him in the rain. Wallenda then sprinted to safe ground and after embracing his wife and family, he was approached by Canadian customs agents who asked him for his passport. “What is the purpose of your trip sir?” the agent asked. “To inspire people around the world to follow their dreams and never give up,” Wallenda said, turning over the passport he carried with him in a waterproof bag. Nik Wallenda is the seventh generation of Great Wallendas who trace their roots back to the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1780. For Nik, every walk is an expression of honor to his great grandfather, the legendary Karl Wallenda who brought the Wallendas to America for The Greatest Show on Earth. During the depression era, his crowning achievement was the seven-person chair pyramid: four men standing on a wire as two pairs with two more men standing on their shoulder bars holding a woman sitting, then standing on a chair at the top of the pyramid. The Wallendas successfully performed it for decades until January 30,1962 when, in Detroit, the front man on the wire faltered and three men fell to the ground, two to their deaths.
Karl Wallenda’s son was paralyzed. Karl continued performing “Sky Walks,” walking between buildings and across stadiums, including Busch, Veterans, JFK, 3 Rivers Stadiums and the Astrodome, among others. His most famous walk was a 1200-foot long trek across the Tallulah Falls Gorge in Georgia, where 30,000 people watched as the 65-year-old legend performed two separate headstands at a height of over 700 feet in the air. Sadly, during a high wire walk in San Juan, Puerto Rico in March 1978, Karl Wallenda, age 73, fell to his death. It was not because of his age, capabilities, or the wind that day, but because of bad rigging, a reason Nik Wallenda and his father always oversee every inch of rigging themselves. Nik Wallenda was “performing” on a high wire before he was born; his mother, Delilah Wallenda, was still walking the high wire six months pregnant with him. Nik’s official first performance was in 1981 at age 2 as a tiny clown carried around in a pillow case. He also began walking the wire that same year but was not permitted to perform professionally on a high wire until age 13. In 2001, he set his first world record in Kurashiki, Japan for the 4 layer 8 person pyramid on a high wire. On June 4, 2011, Nik Wallenda successfully completed the high wire walk in San Juan that his grandfather had never completed — a 135-foot-long high-wire crossing between the two towers of the ten-story Condado Plaza Hotel. Stunning the crowd, Wallenda’s mother, Delilah joined him on the high wire, mother and son starting at opposite ends.
When Delilah reached the middle of the wire, roughly the spot Karl had fallen, she sat down on the wire and Nik stepped over her before the two continued to opposite ends of the wire. Before finishing, Nik knelt down on the wire and blew a kiss in honor of his great-grandfather’s memory. After the feat, Wallenda said he was “not scared at all,” but admitted that the circumstances of Karl’s death had haunted him for years. “To be able to walk in his exact footsteps is an extremely huge honor, and I did this for him as much as I did it for my family to get some closure.” Perhaps not for everyone. Immediately after the Niagara Falls high wire walk, Nik phoned his grandmother, Karl Wallenda’s daughter who had told him she was too frightened to watch. The Niagara Falls walk marks Nik Wallenda’s seventh world record, including one for the highest and longest bike ride on a wire which he performed from Newark, N.J. live on NBC’s Today Show October 15, 2008.
By his side throughout is the beautiful Erendira, the high energy circus performer he married after his 1999 proposal from the high wire, on bended knee in front of 18,000 in Montreal, Canada. Erendira is also circus royalty. On her mother’s side, she is the eighth generation of the Ashtons of Australia, the third oldest circus family in the world. On her father’s side, she is the seventh generation of the Vazquez trapeze artists from Mexico, known worldwide as the first to successfully complete the quadruple somersault. Nik and Erendira have three children: Yanni, Amadaos and Evita who, remarkably, have DNA passed down from 25 generations of circus performers. Up next, Nik Wallenda is in the advanced planning stages of a death-defying wire walk across the Grand Canyon (with permits already secured.) In the meantime, he continues performing daredevil stunts around the world, without any safety devices, on the high wire, the “wheel of death,” hanging by his jaw from a helicopter and more.