Nik Wallenda wows crowd for wirewalking rehearsal at Benderson Park in Sarasota

UNIVERSITY PARK -- As the sun began to set, Bradenton resident Nik Wallenda closed his eyes, gripped the coated cable with his feet and started to walk uphill at a 15-degree angle toward the east.

In front of hundreds of spectators at Nathan Benderson Park, Wallenda, 35, kicked off his three-week practice schedule at 6 p.m. Wednesday in preparation for his next televised tightrope walk in Chicago, which he will do blindfolded in part.

"It's all about challenging myself," Wallenda said after his 50-minute practice. "I live by three words. Never give up. I try to inspire people to never give up. ... To me, this is what I do and how can I inspire people to be better or be greater or strive to be the greatest if I'm not continuing to be the greatest?"

On Nov. 2, Wallenda will walk from one of two Marina Towers buildings in downtown Chicago, then travel more than two city blocks across the Chicago River on an uphill 15-degree angle to the Leo Burnett Building. Then, Wallenda will walk on tightrope -- blindfolded -- to the other Marina Towers building. The walk will be televised at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2, on the Discovery Channel.

"When you get up there, it is fairly steep," Wallenda said of the angled cable. "Really it's about putting myself over Chicago. That's what it is all about."

Wallenda is part of the renowned Sarasota acrobat family, "The Flying Wallendas," famed for aerial feats and tightrope walking without a safety net. At Wednesday's practice, Wallenda was joined by his family, including his children and father.

The first trek up the tightrope Wednesday took Wallenda about 15 minutes to reach the top and the crowd cheered and clapped. Many people took photos and videos of Wallenda climbing the incline practice cable. At the end of every practice, Wallenda said he plans to meet with fans.

A former clown, Patsy Kadlec of Parrish said she is one of those fans as she likes circuses. Kadlec, who videotaped Wallenda's practice climb on her iPad, said she's from Chicago so she knows what he will be facing as November weather in the Windy City can be "unpredictable."

"It's going to be a challenge for him. No question," Charlie Kadlec, Patsy's husband, said of the colder weather.

But Wallenda said there is no concern of slipping with technology on his side and the cable being coated.

"It's almost like sandpaper so my feet will grip it even better," Wallenda said.

Since it will be a lot cooler in Chicago, he plans to stretch a lot before the walk, he said.

The idea to do a portion of the walk blindfolded came to Wallenda when he was having Lasik surgery. During the surgery, Wallenda began to wonder if he could still do tightrope walks without vision.

"If I couldn't see, could I still do what I do?" Wallenda asked.

During Wednesday's practice, Wallenda tried doing the walk without being able to see. After successfully completing a practice walk with his eyes closed, Wallenda said to his staff who guided him: "It's so weird. It's all about faith and trusting you."

Wallenda called the blind walk "a mental game more than anything."

"Every little movement feels like it's just massive," he said.

The Kadlecs plan to come back to watch Wallenda practice as it gets closer to the November event.

"It's history in our lifetime," Patsy Kadlec said. "Years from now our grandkids or our great-grandkids will read about this long after we are gone."

The tightrope practices will continue through Oct. 28 at Nathan Benderson Park, 5851 Nathan Benderson Circle (Cattleman at DeSoto roads) and all practices are open to the public.