Sarasota, Manatee fans excited about Wallenda Grand Canyon walk

rdymond@bradenton.comJune 13, 2013 

SARASOTA -- Nik Wallenda has an immediate answer when fans ask why he wants to walk across the Grand Canyon on a high wire before a live TV audience.

"It's a spot no one has ever been," the 34-year-old Wallenda told a crowd of at least 200 watching him practice Wednesday in Sarasota.

The Sarasota native, as part of the The Flying Wallendas acrobatic family, attracted a new wave of fans June 15, 2012, when he became the first person to walk over Niagara Falls, a feat watched on TV or the Internet by an estimated 1 billion people.

Fans also remember how Wallenda and his mother walked a tight rope between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico in 2011.

"That was a re-creation of the walk that killed my great-grandfather," Wallenda said.

In 1978, Karl Wallenda, at age 73, attempted the same walk between the towers of the 10-story hotel in San Juan. His grandson said the death was avoidable.

"Not because of his age or capabilities, not because of the wind, but because of several misconnected guy ropes along the wire," the family's website states as cause of death.

Now, Nik Wallenda, who has ridden a bicycle and a Wheel of Death on the high wire, is preparing to be the first person to walk 1,400 feet across the Grand Canyon on a high wire. The June 23 walk will be televised live globally in a Discovery Channel special.

"My walk can't go more than 30 minutes because there are no commercials during it," Wallenda said.

His practice sessions attract 200-plus fans every day to Nathan Benderson Park along University Parkway, where he does a 30-minute walk, 15 minutes up and 15 minutes back on a 1,000-foot-long, 2-inch cable attached to a platform crane.

He is only 15 feet to 18 feet above ground at Benderson Park, however -- a far cry from the 1,500-foot height awaiting him at the Grand Canyon where he will be four times higher than he has ever been on a high wire with no safety net.

The winds are expected to be 35 mph to 40 mph at the Grand Canyon, which will require a 40-pound balance pole, heavier than his usual 24-pound pole.

"The winds will be my biggest challenge," Wallenda said. "There will be updrafts and side drafts. It will be very mentally straining. The mental aspect could be overwhelming.

"The cable over the Grand Canyon will move the same way as the cable here in Sarasota," Wallenda said.

Wallenda's final practice walk at Nathan Benderson Park will be at 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. next Wednesday before leaving for Arizona, he said.

Only 300 people, mostly camera crew and Wallenda's team, will be at a remote Grand Canyon location, which required building a road to reach, Wallenda said.

"This is another piece of the puzzle that is my dream," Wallenda said.

He plans to announce his next daredevil feat the day of the Grand Canyon walk.

Wallenda practiced walking the wire through 52-mph gusts and sheets of rain during Tropical Storm Andrea.

"Sarasota has prepared me well," he said.

Wallenda's daredevil feats have made him an international media sensation. He was on a live Australian TV program Wednesday and a film crew from Norway was also at Nathan Benderson Park to interview him.

"I want to promote Sarasota, which will become well-known worldwide for this rowing facility at Benderson Park," Wallenda said. "In the future, there will be a running track and a playground here."

Fans Wednesday saw him as down to earth, an ironic description considering his aerial vocation.

"He is very impressive," said John Ray of Wauchula, who came to watch the practice with his wife, Noreta.

"He's very nice," said Panther Ridge resident Cameron Willis, 11, who likes to walk on curbs and swing from benches.

"He has amazing balance," Cameron said. "It's nothing I could achieve right now. But maybe later in my life."

Wallenda wore a simple gray T-shirt and a cross hung from his neck. Christian music blared over loudspeakers as he walked the practice wire while fans pointed cameras at him.

As he passed above, Wallenda told fans to ask him questions.

Many asked about his famous elk-soled high wire shoes, which are made by his mother.

He said he goes through three or four pairs a year. The elk skin helps him grip the 2-inch cable he uses.

John Ray held his walking cane in his hand as he watched Wallenda walk the wire. Ray has arthritis in both hips and neuropathy in his legs.

Asked why he thinks Wallenda risks his life with these feats, Ray replied: "You've got to do things while you can."

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686.

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