Awaiting the Wisconsin walk: My chat with highwire artist Nik Wallenda
The list of performers lined up for the Wisconsin State Fair Main Stage this summer features some of the biggest names the 10-day celebration has wrangled up in recent note. And the biggest of the bunch – or at least certainly the most unusual – is Nik Wallenda, the tightrope artist extraordinaire most famously seen trotting on a wire about 1,500 feet in the air above the Grand Canyon in "Skywire Live."
The performer's State Fair stunt on Tuesday, Aug. 11 may not have the impressive backdrop of the Grand Canyon (or of his walk between Chicago skyscrapers last November), but there's still something very special about his late summer trip to Milwaukee. Wallenda's approximately 1,560-foot walk – going from turn one to turn four of the Milwaukee Mile at more than 10 stories above the track – will score as the daredevil's longest walk on record.
Even though there's still months to go until he walks across the world famous Milwaukee Mile, Wallenda dropped by Wisconsin State Fair Park to scope out his path and chat with the media.
OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to talk one-on-one with the stuntman about preparing for another life-threatening performance, his equipment and being the seventh generation in a highwire dynasty that shows no sign of stopping. Also, we had to ask what's more intimidating: walking a wire or sampling one of the fair's deep fried specialties on a stick?
OnMilwaukee.com: How far out to plan ahead and prepare for something like this?
Nik Wallenda: It just depends on what the event is. I train no matter what, whether I have an event coming up or not; I'm always on the wire because it's just what I do. But a particular event like this, it's not too extensive. A lot of it is engineering, but my engineer is in-house – it's my uncle – and he's basically got a formula that takes him about 30 minutes to engineer something like this. It's not a very long process, the planning part of it. It's more about the training leading up to it and that sort of thing.
OMC: Are there any lessons you've learned from your past longest walk?
NW: Just that it's all about training, training for that endurance and making sure that I'm prepared for that long of a walk. You can get worn out on a walk like this, using that balancing pole. That balancing pole weighs about 45 pounds. It's a work out.
OMC: Scoping out the area, do you notice any trouble signs or anything like that? Unique wind conditions or something?
NW: No. Of course, weather changes from minute to minute, day to day. I never, months in advance, pay attention to the weather. I was on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and there were 85 mile per hour winds one month before I walked. If I would've let that play tricks on my mind, I would've never even went back. As far as this event, there's nothing that I foresee that I'm overly concerned of, other than I just need to be prepared.
OMC: The cable you're using for this particular walk is different than usual, with the width upgraded from the usual 5/8 of an inch (about the size of a nickel) to 3/4 of an inch (about the size of a quarter). Is that a big adjustment?
NW: It's just unique. It's different. I've walked the same size cable for most of my life, and some of these bigger events, the cable will change because of the tension. It's definitely unique; it's a different braid of cable, so my feet slide a little differently. But I've always been taught, since I was a kid, that champions adjust and that you just adjust to the surroundings.
OMC: And you have special shoes for these walks?
NW: Correct. Basically, it's a moccasin that my mom makes, but it fits the contour of my foot. It's got a thin elk skin bottom, and I can feel the wire through that. It's also made so that it grabs that wire, so that it's not slippery. It actually kind of sticks to that wire if it gets wet.
OMC: What's it like being a part of a family whose occupation is so unique?
NW: You know, I guess the better question would be what would it be like to not be part of that family. I don't know anything different; it's my life. So what is it like? It's like normal. (laughs)
OMC: Is there any major difference between doing a walk over a natural monument, like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, and a manmade area like this?
NW: Not at all. The truth is the dangers are the same. I've lost several family members from 30 feet above the ground. I've got an uncle who just passed away this week, but he was paralyzed from falling from 30 feet above the ground. The truth is the dangers are the same: 30 feet, 100 feet, 1,000 feet, over the Milwaukee Mile or over the Grand Canyon. The truth is, in the end, if I were to fall, I would lose my life. So no, there really isn't a difference.
OMC: Is it kind of odd to have a career where the audience watching you, a part of them always intrigued to see what happens - if you do fail or fall?
NW: It's not. I have those same intriguing thoughts of when you see an ambulance, you want to look and see what's going on. That's human nature; that's the way that we were made and programmed. People go to NASCAR, and there's a percentage that's there to see the accident more than the checkered flag winner. It's just the reality of life in general. So no, I don't find that odd at all. I find those things just as fascinating as the fans do.
OMC: You sometimes take selfies during these walks, and you plan to possibly take some audience questions during the State Fair event in August? Do you train for those kind of fun distractions?
NW: I mean, I'm in my backyard, ever since my kids were little, yelling at them as I'm training like, "Hey, cut it out!" or "Leave the dog alone!" Again, it's something I've done. I can talk to my wife while I'm on wire, and I communicate with my family on the wire just like everyone else. Every walk that I do, I talk with my father in my ear for safety purposes, because he's my safety coordinator on the ground. It's nothing abnormal. We can multitask to a certain point; I'm just walking and talking.
OMC: Why the Wisconsin State Fair territory, especially as compared to the giant monuments like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls you've done before?
NW: For one, it's an opportunity to meet and perform for a new crowd, a new audience. I enjoy performing on TV; I've had three majorly successful TV specials that were aired worldwide. My last one aired live in 236 countries around the world, the biggest live special in the history of the stunt world.
That's fun, that's exciting, and it's an honor – but, for me, it's about performing for a live audience. There's something exhilarating and fun about that, so I love any opportunity I get to entertain a live audience. When I looked at this spot on Google Earth and saw the fact that there was an amazing opportunity for a lot of people to be here and sit there and watch this event. I love performing, so of course I'm going to say yes.
OMC: What is scarier or more intimidating: walking a wire or trying out one of the State Fair's yearly special fried foods?
NW: Depends on if my wife is with me or not.
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