In June 2013, wirewalker Nik Wallenda made headlines and broke ratings records by traversing the Grand Canyon in a live Discovery Channel broadcast. On Nov. 2, Wallenda will attempt to top himself with an equally daring feat: walking a wire between two Chicago skyscrapers, and for part of it he'll be blindfolded.
"Skyscraper Live With Nik Wallenda," hosted by NBC News's Willie Geist, Natalie Morales and The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore, will air at 7 p.m. EST and follow Wallenda as he crosses two city blocks at a 15-degree incline above the Chicago River. For the second half of the walk, he'll put on a blindfold.
"This is going to be the most incredible tightrope walk of my career," said Wallenda, who is carrying on the tradition of The Flying Wallendas, the high-wire act his late great-grandfather popularized. "I can't think of a better city to do it. I have fond memories of spending time performing in Chicago and the Midwest with my family. Besides, it's the Windy City, and there's nothing like doing this during winter in Chicago. That's a challenge for me, and I love to push myself to do things that most people think are impossible." How will he do it? He took time out from training to explain his preparation process.
MNN: Why did you choose Chicago for this tightrope walk?
Nik Wallenda: It really came about because I was attracted to the title of Chicago: the Windy City. You would think most wirewalkers 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 was just extremely attractive to me.
How are you preparing, physically and mentally?
The physical preparation, I spend time in the gym every morning for about an hour, which is cardio, as well as some weight training. Then I spend time on the wire. I spend 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.
Mentally, really it all starts with the physical training. As I'm training here in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida, I'm training on a wire that's rigged the same distance at a 15-degree incline. I start on the ground and I end up about 90 feet high, so in training I'm risking my life every time I walk that cable. I've lost four family members from 30 feet high. I'm going almost three times higher than that just in training, but as I'm training, I'm putting myself over the city of Chicago. I'm imagining that city below, those city sounds, the smells, the winds, meditating on that walk as I prepare here.
I'm very blessed to have the opportunity to train like this. Many of my ancestors didn't. They would just get out there and walk the wire and see what it would feel like. Here I have a great idea of what that wire is going to feel like. I know how stable. I know the incline. I know the distance. All of that stuff is an advantage to me to make what I do that much more safer because I'm that much more prepared than any of them were before they got out on those wires.
My great-grandfather lost his life because the wire was rigged improperly. It had nothing to do with wind, which is what everybody said. It actually had to do with that rigging. If you watch that video, you can see how that wire is stabilized and if you compare that to the wires I walk on today and the wires he walked on in his day, it was rigged improperly and because of that it ended up costing him his life. So my training, my mental prep, all of that stuff isn't just training for me, it's training for my riggers, for my crew. I know that 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.
How do you conquer your fear?
Whenever I am in any situation that is stressful, whether it's 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.
How windy is too windy to do the walk — is there a cutoff?
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. 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.
After the last successful walk over the Grand Canyon, did you feel pressure to top it?
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. How can I push myself? My first thought was I can walk at an incline uphill the entire walk, which is changing everything. I'll be walking up a 15-degree incline ... actually it's almost 16 degrees. 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. 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 incredibly, 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 wondered if I could still perform without being able to see, so I began to walk the wire with my eyes closed and as I did that, I started pushing myself and literally having my team push me. I'd be two feet off the ground. They would come up and push me to the side and push me, hit my balancing pole, shake the wire, do everything they could to try get me off of the wire while I was blindfolded. I was able to hold on and stay on that wire with all of that pressure. I thought this would be pretty awesome and pretty inspiring.
Nik Wallenda studies the Chicago skyline in preparation for his high-wire walk.
What goes through your mind when you're up there?
It's really about prayer, which I guess is a form of meditation, but my form of meditation is talking to God. I also have in-ear monitors and a microphone that [my wife is] tapped into, too, so I can actually talk to her as I'm walking. She hears everything that I'm saying; and I'm also talking to my father the entire time and he's coaching me along.
Are you thinking about the next walk? Where are you considering?
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 are a lot of international locations that I'm looking at. There's just a lot of challenges, and of course funding. It's very expensive to make these events happen safely and effectively, with everything that goes into it from public safety from the spectators all the way to rigging the wire. All of that comes into play, but I'm hoping to be able to do some international stuff very soon.
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