EAST COUNTY — Halfway through a 1,080-foot-long walk atop a 2-inch steel cable strung above the Regatta Island at Nathan Benderson Park, Nik Wallenda abruptly squatted into his best pose.
Gawking onlookers wanted to snap a photograph. Wallenda directed the shot by motioning with his head, not his hands, which stayed gripped to a 30-foot pole.
“You’re on the sunny side; turn around that way,” Wallenda said, instructing the fan away from a glare.
It was June 7, during part of a two-week practice session, meant to prepare Wallenda for a 1,300-foot-long walk 1,500 feet above the Grand Canyon.
But this is more than a rehearsal for the 34-year-old wire walker with the famous name, although the thicker, heavier cable, hoisted by two cranes and stabilized by dumpsters filled with 140,000 pounds of sand, somewhat mimics the conditions Wallenda will face when he walks over the Little Colorado River in a remote section of Navajo Nation.
It’s also a chance to entertain the locals in an intimate setting, in which Wallenda patiently takes questions as he walks the high wire.
Although Wallenda answers, his mind, his only safety net from death, should be zoned on the rocks of the canyon. There, he will walk over an area known as Hellhole Bend in two weeks.
For someone who is more a businessman than an adrenaline junky, the practice sessions also serve as a way to build brand recognition in his hometown.
“To do what I do, you can do it or you can do it,” Wallenda said. “I can walk a wire and have no one show up and have no personality and no relationship with the media and no brand. Or, I can have a personality and be relatable and interact with people on personal basis.”
On June 23, at the Grand Canyon, Wallenda perform for an estimated Discovery Channel audience of more than 1 billion people.
The upcoming walk, performed without a safety net or harness, but with two small metallic baskets waiting below, will top his June 2012 walk above Niagara Falls.
But, it will do little to accomplish another of Wallenda’s goals: to shed his “King of the Wire” nickname, a tag too cocky for a the father of three.
A CONVERSATION WITH NIK WALLENDA ...
The challenge: Mental more than physical:
Generally, Wallenda trains five days a week on a wire for three to four hours a day. He also goes to the gym five days a week and places a heavy emphasis on core work. But, the physical challenge is routine. The mental is not.
“It’s a mental game to be honest. At his point in my life, it’s all mental when you get up high. I’ve been walking a wire since I was 2 years old. It’s about focus. It’s a totally different me up there; a totally different demeanor takes over. Fear is a choice, and danger is real.”
Does Wallenda get nervous?
“I don’t, per say, get nervous. There are, of course nerves, but more than anything, it’s respect. I respect the fact that what I do is dangerous, and, if I lose that respect, it becomes more dangerous. It’s easy to become very complacent when you do what I have been doing my entire life.”
On tips for stage fright and how he deals with it:
“The size of the Grand Canyon audience won’t even cross my mind. Practice is the most important thing, but I do not believe practice can make perfect — at least, not in my line of work. My great-grandfather was 73 years, and he lost his life doing (walking the wire). He practiced his whole life. But, practice definitely helps.”
On why he walks wires: “I’m an entertainer and I love what I do. I actually don’t think I’m an adrenaline junky, at all. I guess maybe there is some adrenaline, but it’s something I’ve been doing so long, so it’s not new
On who inspired him to build a brand:
“I admire Evel Knievel, David Blaine, Bello Nock and my great-grandfather. They all built brands, and that’s why we know their names. I knew we had that same opportunity.”
On his brand:
“I’ve been blessed with a name that’s known all over the world. I could just get in my car and leave. That’s not me. I will never be that way, and I keep friends who make sure I never become that.”
Wallenda releases new book on life
Nik Wallenda released June 4 a memoir titled, “Balance: A Story of Faith, Family and Life on the Line.” In the book, Wallenda, a seventh-generation descendant of the famous Great Wallendas, describes his faith as the key to his success.
IF YOU GO:
Nik Wallenda’s rehearsals for the Grand Canyon Challenge
When: June 6 through June 19; his hour-long morning sessions begin at 10:30 a.m. and end with an 11:30 a.m. press conference. Evening rehearsals take place at 6 p.m. Wallenda will practice at 3 p.m., Sundays. There is no rehearsal on Mondays.
Where: Regatta Island, at Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park, 2500 N. Honore Ave.
Details: The Sarasota practices mimic the conditions Wallenda will experience at a June 23 traverse walk over the Grand Canyon, where he will walk over the Little Colorado River in a remote section of the Navajo Nation. Wallenda is trying to get used to walking on a 2-inch steel cable, which is heavier than the 5/8-inch wire he usually uses. The Discovery Channel will televise the feat for an estimated audience of more than 1 billion people.