Wallenda finishes high-wire practice at Benderson Park before Sunday's Grand Canyon walk

dgraham@bradenton.comJune 20, 2013 

SARASOTA -- Pulling off his shoes in the rain Wednesday to tread the high wire in his stocking feet, Nik Wallenda walked sure-footed and confident across the length of the lake at Benderson Park on his last day of regular practice before tackling the Grand Canyon.

The 1,400-foot high wire event will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. Sunday from the Grand Canyon on the Discovery Channel and Discovery.com.

The daily practice, Wallenda said Wednesday, has been "about being prepared mentally. Every evening I go home and I concentrate on it. It's about building confidence more and more, the fact that I've walked on this cable so many times. I know I have plenty of endurance to make it across."

When he takes on the Grand Canyon, Wallenda said, "I won't be sweating as much, which is great, because there won't be as much water in my eyes. I'll be drinking a lot of water and make sure that I'm prepared for it.

The cable's the same, he noted.

"It's a little shorter here and I'm walking further there, but it's a lot harder with the humidity than it is without," Wallenda said.

Although the winds may differ in Arizona, Wallenda practiced in real and artificial weather to get used to changes.

"I walked during Tropical Storm Andrea in 52-mph gusts, and actually walked with my wind machines at a steady wind of 92 mph last week," he said.

He estimated as many as 30,000 fans have come out to watch him practice during the last two weeks.

"That just means the world to me," Wallenda said. "That just speaks volumes about how much this community loves me. And I love them."

During each practice session, the high-wire walker stopped and sat about halfway along the stretch to give supporters a chance to ask questions and interact.

"I sit over the water and do question and answer with my fans because I want to, not because I have to," Wallenda said. "That was the reason why I was so adamant about bringing it here to Sarasota. They are so supportive and it means the world to me.

"My family's lived here since 1928, so for four generations my family has lived in Sarasota," he said. "I hope to always live here. I plan on by the end of this year having my own training facility built where people can fly in and learn how to walk the wire from me, and where people can learn to overcome things that seem like they are impossible."

The Wallenda family began performing as far back as the 1780s in Europe, and achieved circus fame in this country after John Ringling brought them here from Cuba in the 1920s.

When he's out there on the wire, Wallenda said, "I'm thinking about my family, I'm thinking of my ancestors, the one who paid the price for me to do what I do. I do everything to pay tribute to them, to my heritage and what they did to make it possible for me to be able to do this."

Fans who turned out Wednesday in the rain were not disappointed.

"I think it's wonderful," said Esther Castella, who was amazed Wallenda would continue his walk in the rain. "We've seen him several times already. We enjoy it. I don't care how wet I get. He took his shoes off and he's in his socks."

Janice Steffey of the Cascades watched the practices with her housemate and sister, Kathy Vecchio.

"From the time we were little kids, my mother and dad always talked about the Wallendas, how they were such daredevils, and how they did the different things," Steffey said. "I think of everything. We're just in Sarasota now for two years so it's nice for us to be able to come and watch."

Ice cream vendor Kathy Connett of The Purple Belle watched twice a day while selling treats.

"The crowds got bigger," Connett said. "They love how he sits on the wire and chats to the people. They talk about how gracious he is. He is calm and cool. You can tell that he is right where he wants to be.

"Our residents have been exposed to this new park and that's another huge comment I've heard -- how beautiful the new park is now and it's not even open. What a great opportunity that he was able to practice right here in his hometown."

Dee Graham, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024, or tweet @DeeGrahamBH.

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