When Lisa Wallenda graduated from college, she received the typical gifts: a leather briefcase, an electronic organizer. But her Aunt Carla couldn't resist. She wrapped up a pair of "loops"–the padded fabric rings used by circus aerialists when they do their highflying midair tricks.
"My aunt said I might use them someday," Wallenda recalls.
Call it a gift of hope.
Yes, Lisa Wallenda is a member of the family of aerialists known as the Great Wallendas–the daredevils who walk on high wires suspended 40 feet in the air, who ride bikes and stack seven people into towering pyramids on taut cable wire. All without a net.
And Lisa did end up using the loops–though not in the way her aunt intended. These days, the 29-year-old lobbyist and mother hooks them onto the jungle gym at the park near her Arlington home, slides her ankles in, drops her head to the ground, and does pull-ups and stretches.
"The other mothers think I'm crazy," she laughs. "But trust me–if you hang upside down for a little while, it realigns your whole body."
Not continuing in the family business realigned Lisa's life. She surprised the rest of the Wallendas by announcing that she was going to college.
"They thought it was really cool," she says, "but it was cool in the way going to Thailand is cool. They were like, 'Wow, what is that like?' "
When she started classes at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, Lisa was the first of seven generations and 20 first cousins to attend college. Still, her summer "internships" were spent performing as an aerialist in the Shrine Circus for $150 a week plus room and board.
The summer of her junior year, Lisa decided it was time to leave the family act for good. She was tired of the low pay, and at five-foot-ten she was too tall for some of the aerial tricks. Breaking tradition came naturally to her–her father had married a woman who worked outside the three rings as a schoolteacher.
Lisa's mother had passed on a love of politics to her daughter. So Lisa moved to Washington to find an internship on the Hill. While interviewing, she ran into a young campaign worker who said that the Bush/Quayle campaign needed help. Lisa signed on as an intern for deputy campaign manager Mary Matalin.
After her summers under the big top, she says, "I was just thrilled to work in an office building."
The Wallendas' history as circus performers dates back to 18th-century Germany, where Lisa's ancestors were a traveling troupe of acrobats, jugglers, clowns, aerialists, and animal trainers. In the United States, three generations of the family have been performing since 1928, when they debuted at Madison Square Garden. John Ringling had discovered the family in Cuba and brought them over to tour with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The Wallendas settled in Sarasota, Florida–winter home of many circus performers. Lisa was born 44 years later. Life in Sarasota didn't make for a traditional upbringing. The neighborhood was filled with circus folks on hiatus from the big top.
The guy down the street had the "cat act," and Lisa often would go to his house to play with the orange-and-black-striped Bengal tiger cubs. One of her dad's best friends was the human cannonball. When she was in college, her aunt and uncle had 12 poodles who pleased audiences by standing on their hind legs and jumping through hoops.
For several months each year her family would load up its 16-foot Winnebago and travel up and down the East Coast. For a few years they traveled with King Tusk, the famed Asian elephant who toured with Ringling for years before retiring. In between shows, Lisa would go over to the animal tent to feed the huge pachyderm.
At home in Florida, there were wires in the backyard for practice. At age four Lisa would hold her arms out for balance and practice "walking" two feet off the ground. As she improved, her father raised the wire, first to four feet, then to seven.
"I was always so mad I wasn't up higher," says Wallenda, who worked her way up to 40 feet as a teen. "But my dad's attitude was, if you're not good enough, you don't go up."
Her father had reason to be cautious. Eight Wallendas have died in aerial accidents. Lisa's great-uncle fell to his death while sky-walking between buildings in San Juan. And her uncle Mario was paralyzed from the waist down when his seven-person pyramid toppled.
Lisa doesn't regret leaving the circus. she does miss performing. But life has a way of bringing you back to where you started.
After college, Lisa moved to Washington to work for the Republican National Committee. Then she went to a tech association as a lobbyist. It was there she found out that Feld Entertainment, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus headquarters, was located in Vienna. She applied for a job as a lobbyist at Feld–and got it.
Now she spends her days trying to see that local, state, and federal laws are "working" for the circus. And she gets to take some interesting field trips. In January she was at the Center for Elephant Conservation discussing how Ringling could help in breeding endangered Asian elephants; the circus owns the largest gene pool of Asian elephants outside of southeast Asia.
"It's nice to be tied to the family again, to be back in the family business," she says. The rest of the Wallendas are also happy–they've set their sights on Lisa's two-year-old and infant daughters. Although her husband, Bill, a high-tech salesman, has no interest in learning to walk the wires, Lisa hasn't discouraged her kids.
"My two-year-old walked the wire this past summer," she says, "and she got her first pair of wire shoes at six months. In our famly, it's just something you do."