Nik Wallenda believes nothing is impossible. That's why he's going to cross 1,400 feet of the Grand Canyon on a tightrope over 1,500 feet above the ground—without a safety harness.
The daredevil attempt scheduled for this Sunday is not this acrobat's only feat. Wallenda is a seventh-generation "Flying Wallenda" circus performer, and he's also known for his record- and law-breaking walk on a tightrope across Niagara Falls in June 2012 (one of CT's top 10 Gleanings of the year)—all while wearing a cross necklace outside of his shirt and proclaiming faith in Christ.
Even though his great-grandfather lost his life walking a line between Puerto Rico's Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza Hotel towers in 1978, Wallenda insists that he completes feats by remembering these three words: "Never give up."
CT recently talked with Wallenda about how Christianity keeps him focused, and what it means to walk by faith on a cable suspended thousands of feet above the Earth.
When did you decide you wanted to be a tightrope walker?
My great grandfather, Karl Wallenda, is a huge inspiration behind what I do. As I was growing up I thought about other careers, and toyed with the idea of going to college. For a while it seemed like the industry was dying, but then my family went to Detroit and re-created a pyramid where my family had fallen back in 1962. The media was overwhelming. It was then I realized our industry wasn't dying, it was just changing. We had to change with the times, so that's what I've done.
Speaking of your great-grandfather and your family's fall in 1962, it's evident that failure is an inevitable part of life. How do you overcome the fear of failure and persevere in tough situations?
Most of my autographs are signed "never give up," because those are three words I live by. No matter what comes at me, whatever challenges come my way, I never give up. With the Niagara Falls walk last summer, we had to change two laws: one in the U. S., and one in Canada that was over 100 years old. We had to get the government's permission to do that walk, and there were many times the government said no.
But I believe in pursuing your dreams and always focusing on the positive. That's what I chose to do in that instance. In the end I prevailed, and was able to fulfill a lifelong dream that no one in the world had ever been able to. Several had tried. Some of the best wire walkers in the world had tried to get permission over the last 100 years, but none of them were successful. If you set your mind to it, if you train hard enough, if you focus enough, you can accomplish anything in life, no matter who you are. So many people lose their dreams because someone in their life or they … talk themselves out of it. I hope what people see me do inspires them to believe nothing is impossible.
What role does faith play in your life?
My faith plays a huge role in my life, and I am very blessed to be where I am. One of the questions I always get is, "Are you testing your faith / are you testing God?" I don't see it like that at all. I don't believe God keeps me on the wire.
I believe God gives me a unique ability to walk the wire, but it's up to me whether I train properly. There's a lot of people that have amazing relationships with Christ that lose their lives in a car accident. Does that mean they didn't have a good enough relationship with Jesus? No. Life happens and God created us all in his image, but we're all our own people. We're not robots. We make decisions.
So I don't think that I'm testing God. Again, I don't think he keeps me up there, but I definitely know where I'm going if I were to fall and lose my life.
What sort of safety precautions will you be taking for this walk?
I won't be wearing a tether, but I will have rescue personnel standing by if anything happens. Gravity pulls you down, so if anything were to happen, I would grab that wire which is something I've been training for all my life. Then I would stand by and wait for help. That wouldn't take long—about 60 seconds from (wherever) I am on that wire.
How do you train for an event like this?
Right now I'm training on how to autograph a lot of books! [laughs] As far as training for this event, of course, I started training when I started walking the wire at two years old. But for this specific event I'll be training in my hometown of Sarasota, Florida, on a cable nearly the same length, although low to the ground. I'll actually re-create winds, updrafts, and side drafts to really just get a feel of the movement of that cable. It sort of has a life of its own and moves under me.
As far as mental preparation goes, it really comes down to focus and visualizing myself making it across the canyon. When I'm training I visualize myself walking over the Grand Canyon, then when I'm actually walking over the Grand Canyon, I'm visualizing myself back at training. The mental prep is just being on that wire knowing I can withstand that wind and those updrafts and such.
It must be hard for your family to watch you up there on the wire. How do your wife and kids respond to your risk-taking tendencies?
They're very supportive—they understand it. My kids grew up seeing it. It's really all they know for their father to do, so they're accustomed to it. My wife comes from eight generations of circus background, so she really believes in what I do and has the same passion for what I do. As a matter of fact, she walks the wire alongside me very often. All three of my children—15, 12, and 10—walk the wire and are very good at it. None of them want to do it for a career, and I'm fine with that.
Were you raised in a "Christian home"? What was faith life like in the circus?
Absolutely. Back then we used to get our sermons on cassette tapes. Every week our local church would record their sermons and send them out to us. As we traveled they'd be mailed to us wherever we were. So often that's how we'd do church—as we traveled in our RV.
Performing life is a great life. I got to travel and see the world. A lot of dreams like crossing the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls came to me while traveling and visiting those destinations. A lot of kids don't get a chance to visit all those places, but I'd been all across the United States by the time I was 15.
Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; acknowledge him in all your ways."
(God) will fulfill the desires of your heart. That's a big one to me, especially the part where it says lean not on your own understanding. I think so often most of us humans want to reason, and we often talk ourselves out of fulfilling our dreams. But if God lays a plan in your heart, he'll help you fulfill it as long as you do it according to his Word—as long as you pursue it and don't give up.
In many, many years, when your life is over, how do you want people to remember you?
Hopefully as an incredibly inspirational role model. I try to live my life upright, but I make mistakes like everybody else. I think that's why a lot of people relate to me, because I'm human. I think Christians sometimes put a persona on others that we're better than everybody. In my opinion there's almost an arrogance that comes out of a lot of churches, that it's a private club. Todd Agnew has a song, "My Jesus (Which Jesus Do You Follow)," and he talks about if Jesus came to your church, would you let him in, or would he be too dirty? His clothes would probably be torn.
So I hope that people see me as a role model of yes, he makes mistakes, and yes, he makes errors, but the difference is that he's accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. The Bible says: "If you confess me before men, I'll confess you before my father." That's important to me—that people see me as human, that they see my errors. If you read my book Balance, it talks about my errors, my struggles with ego, my struggles with raising kids and being a father and husband—marriage problems, even. The fact is that hey, I'm human, I make mistakes like everyone else, and I thank God for his grace. That's the only reason why I'm here today.
Allison J. Althoff, a former CT editorial intern, is associate online editor at Today's Christian Woman.