The weekday morning quiet of National Harbor was broken Wednesday when a sizable crowd gathered, mouth agape, necks craned, and phones up as Nik Wallenda walked 75 feet above the ground on a cable about the thickness of a nickel. Using nothing but a balance bar, Wallenda walked between two restaurants with the Potomac River as the backdrop. The stunt is a preview of the Big Apple Circus, which Wallenda is headlining. It opens March 8 at National Harbor.
It wasn’t all that windy Wednesday, but Wallenda says he trains for 90-mile-per-hour winds. He also says he would likely call off a walk if winds exceeded 45 miles per hour. Wallenda is, of course, a member of the famous “Flying Wallendas” family, and when he walks he wears special elk-skin and leather shoes made by his mother. Other shoes just don’t feel the same. For the most part, he made it look easy–and even started to show off and walk backwards at one point.
By no means was this Wallenda’s most jaw-dropping stunt. The 39-year-old funambulist’s history with daredevil feats include walking 1,500 feet high across the Grand Canyon and hanging by his teeth from a helicopter 250 feet off the ground. He was the first tightrope walker to walk across Niagara Falls–a feat that required him to get laws in both Canada and the US changed beforehand. At National Harbor, no extensive diplomatic efforts were necessary.
Despite his impressive list of acrobatic accolades, Wallenda says he still gets nervous. His great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, was a notable wirewalker and circus performer who lost his life in one of his smaller, less impressive walks. Given that, Wallenda takes no walk lightly, “The reality is your chances of living from a fall are very, very slim from that height.” In general, he adds,”when you become complacent is when you get injured.” Before setting foot on the cable, he usually says a prayer with his family.
Wallenda started wirewalking at a young age. His wife, Erendira Wallenda, is also a daredevil and impressive aerialist—she actually broke one of her husband’s world records when she dangled over Niagara Falls by her teeth. His three children, all in their teens and early 20s, are good wirewalkers, Wallenda says, but none plan to pursue it professionally.
Big Apple Circus will nonetheless feature a seven-person pyramid tightrope walk done by a team partially made up of Wallenda’s family. Wallenda says impressing onlookers isn’t his goal–he wants to inspire them. “I believe there’s something beautiful and artistic about what I do,” he says, “And I try to paint a picture every time I get on the wire.”