His parents wanted something better for him than the circus life. But what could be better?
May 17, 2013
The two-inch-wide steel cable felt cold and wet beneath the elk-skin-soled moccasins my mother had made me. I slid one foot forward, then the other.
Below was the lip of Niagara Falls, where 600,000 gallons of water per second plunged 170 feet straight down to jagged rocks. Billowing white clouds of spray spewed hundreds of feet into the air.
The wind machines and fire hoses I’d practiced with were nothing compared with the turbulence that buffeted me and the swirling mist that made it hard to even see the high wire swaying under my feet.
I grasped the 40-pound balancing pole. It lowered my center of gravity and helped steady me on the 1,500-footlong wire I was walking, crossing from New York to Canada. I still had a long way to go.
“Looking good, Nik.” My dad’s voice came through my earpiece, quiet and soothing against the roar of the falls below. “Nice calm steps.”
My heart pounded, not from fear but from excitement. Out there in the floodlit darkness were thousands of people watching me attempt this feat, hundreds of news cameras recording my every step.
Other people had crossed the Niagara Gorge back in the 1800s but never directly over Horseshoe Falls. I had dreamed of doing this walk since I was six years old, and now, 27 years later, it was finally happening. “Thank you, Lord,” I said out loud, over and over.
You might be wondering how someone gets a dream like this—I know it seems crazy to a lot of people. I really think that my dream chose me. Walking the high wire is in my blood. I’m part of the seventh generation of a circus family that began performing in Eastern Europe in the 1780s.
My mom walked the line while pregnant with me. I was walking a two-foot-high practice wire in my parents’ backyard by the age of two.
One night a program about my family came on TV. Grainy, silent news footage showed a balding man walking a wire between two tall buildings in Puerto Rico. Suddenly, the wire started to shake, and the man’s pole bobbed up and down like a seesaw.
My mom tried to coax me away from the television but I was mesmerized. The man lowered himself, then grabbed at the wire and hung on for a moment before falling to his death.
“Who was that?” I asked my parents.
They exchanged a long look before my dad answered. “That was your great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda. Your mother’s grandfather. He made the family name what it is.”
I was too young to fully understand then what he meant, but I knew Karl was important. I peppered my parents with lots more questions about him and the rest of our family while we traveled the country, as we did much of each year, performing in circuses and fairs.
My parents walked the wire, while my older sister and I had supporting roles in their act. It might be surprising, but I never really worried about my parents doing what they did for a living. Before every show we prayed together. “Dear Father, protect us, and may our talents be used for your glory,” my dad would say.
We often drove in a truck for 12 or more hours a day, singing along to praise and worship music, before settling in at a campground where my sister and I caught up on our lessons with Mom. On one of these trips, we visited Niagara Falls.
“I want to walk across the waterfall when I grow up,” I announced to my parents.
My dad chuckled. “No one has even been allowed to try that for almost a hundred years.”
Shaking her head, my mom added, “There are lots of other things you can do in life besides walking the wire, Nikolas. Work hard and you can do anything.”
But as I grew, I begged my parents to let me perform on the wire with them. They wanted me to prove I was ready; they would throw things at me and shake the wire in our backyard to distract me as I walked, testing my focus.
My friends from the youth group at our church would come over and we’d play around on the wire. Everyone knew about my family legacy, the legacy Karl had created.
You see, the Wallendas weren’t always wire-walkers. Karl was born into the third generation of circus Wallendas and when he was 17, he answered a newspaper ad seeking a hand balancer who wasn’t afraid of heights.
Karl learned how to walk and do handstands on the wire. He started his own troupe, brought it to America and conceived its amazing signature act, the seven-person chair pyramid.
For years, my family performed the act flawlessly before thousands of people. But during a performance in Detroit in 1962, the front man in the pyramid lost his footing, causing a chain reaction that sent three men hurtling 40 feet to the ground. Two of them died and the third—Karl’s own son—was paralyzed.
Yet Karl went on to perform daring solo sky walks over gorges and between high-rises, building up the Wallenda name, until 1978, when he plunged to his death in that sudden, silent fall in Puerto Rico at age 73. By the time I was born, the following year, the large Wallenda clan had broken up into several different groups.
As I grew older, the hardships of our daily lives began to wear on me. Sometimes our truck would break down and my mom and dad didn’t know how they’d find the money to get us to the next show. They struggled to stretch their meager pay to cover food and clothes.
My parents encouraged me to get out of the family business, especially after I turned 13, when they had to declare bankruptcy. Around the same time, though, they finally relented and let me walk the wire professionally.
Up on the line, it was so natural, so easy, but down in the real world, I lay awake at night listening to my parents’ tense whispers about money and convinced myself it was best to let go of my dream of following in Karl’s footsteps.
At 15, I got myself a nice, normal job as a busboy at First Watch, a breakfast-and-lunch restaurant in Sarasota. I worked my way up the ranks until I ran the kitchen. I got accepted to Southeastern University, a Bible college in Lakeland, Florida, and planned on studying to become a pediatrician.
I’d started dating Erendira, a beautiful girl I’d known for years who was also from a circus family. I was happy, so happy. And yet the wire still beckoned, and Erendira understood its lure.
Then our family was invited to resurrect the seven-person pyramid by the same Detroit circus where two Wallendas had lost their lives 36 years earlier. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to help close that tragic chapter of our family legacy. And then maybe, just maybe, I would be able to move on.
We trained for months before successfully reenacting the pyramid for an audience teeming with reporters. As I came down from the wire afterward, the dream I had tried so hard to abandon was ignited again within me—more like a calling than a dream.
That night, I watched news reports about our accomplishment, and inevitably there was a clip of Karl’s fateful fall. He was a man of such vision, such passion, following his calling no matter what. Was it that same passion that drove me?
Be sensible, I told myself. Become a doctor and have a good life like Mom and Dad want for you, like Erendira deserves. Yet I knew my family had a special gift, a talent they had stayed true to for years.
I didn’t know why God had given us this gift, but I knew in my heart that the only way to honor it was to use it. Even if it was difficult, even if it was dangerous. Danger was real, but fear was a choice. I would choose faith instead—after all, that was a part of my family legacy too. Everything we did was for the glory of God.
My parents fought my decision. “We want you to study and move on, Nikolas,” my mother said. Her anxiety was clearly stamped on the features that were so composed when she walked the wire.
Dad raised his head from his hands. “I should never have allowed you to be part of the pyramid. We wanted better for you, Nik.”
And yet now, high above Niagara, it was my father’s voice guiding me at every step. My hands were going numb around the balance pole, my eyes straining to keep their focus through the stinging mist. Dad urged me forward.
I thought of how far I had come since that leap of faith almost 15 years earlier. I had broken world records; my mom and I had completed the same walk that had taken Karl’s life, as a tribute; I had persevered through two years of red tape just to get permission to attempt this walk.
Not everything had gone as I’d hoped—I’d had to wear a tether for the first time in my career to keep my television sponsor. But now I was so close to completing the walk, I could hear the cheers of the audience on the Canadian side rising to greet me.
I dropped to one knee on the wire and blew a kiss heavenward to Karl before rising and jogging the last few steps to the end of the line, where I hugged Erendira and our three children close.
Those cheers were wonderful, but you know what was even better? All the people who talked and wrote to me afterward, telling me that watching my walk had inspired them to take the first step in pursuing their dreams or facing their fears.
My next plan is to walk across the Grand Canyon in June, 1,500 feet above the river and the magnificent ancient rock. And this time there will be no tether or net, in keeping with the way the Wallendas have performed for decades.
Before I set out, I will join with my family in prayer, just as I do before every walk I take on the wire. We will thank God for a gift we may not understand but which we know we must honor. I train, I focus and I have faith in the path I feel called to follow—I know God is with me every step of the way.
View images of Nik performing his amazing feats!
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