JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
And you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Last weekend, you might have tuned in to watch aerialist Nik Wallenda cross the Grand Canyon on a wire. Yes, technically, it was a 1,500-foot gorge near the Grand Canyon, but close enough. Now, he's back on the ground in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida, and he joins me from a studio there.
Nik, so great to have you here. And I'm so glad to have you back on the ground.
NIK WALLENDA: So am I.
LYDEN: Oh, my goodness' sakes. Would you describe, from your perspective, exactly what you did last week?
WALLENDA: Well, I was the first person in the world to walk a high wire over the Grand Canyon.
LYDEN: What were you feeling? Because I know what I was feeling. I was just feeling dizzy just standing there watching you.
WALLENDA: It's a good thing that I don't get dizzy like you were, that's for sure, because of what I'm doing. But it really speaks volumes to the comfort level that I have. Of course, there's nerves involved, of course, there's butterflies, but it's definitely not a fear.
LYDEN: Whenever I've seen the Flying Wallendas, they're - let's face it, they're glamorous and they're wearing spandex. And you were wearing street clothes. You were wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Why?
WALLENDA: Because I guess I'm the bad Wallenda.
WALLENDA: I want to make sure that people can relate to me. That, hey, here's a guy who is married with three kids. He eats, sleeps, drinks, bleeds just like the rest of us, and he has a very unique occupation.
LYDEN: It's one thing that you do this without any net, but the family's there on the other side. And you're actually teaching them how to do this too. That is - that's hard to understand.
WALLENDA: Well, when you say teaching them - I've got three kids, 15, 12 and 10. And I've never ever told them to get on a wire before. But all of them are very good on the wire. And I think it has to do with the fact - I know at least in my case when I was a child, I saw my parents loving and enjoying walking the wire, and I wanted to be a part of it.
My three kids all walk the wire. However, I've not let them perform in front of an audience - very, very minimal, as a matter of fact. And the reason is I don't want them to get that itch. I want them to do what they want to do for their career.
LYDEN: Yeah. Let's go back seven generations. That's how far your family goes back to, as you say, walking on the wire. Tell us a little bit about your ancestors, your forbearers.
WALLENDA: My family started performing back in the 1780s over in Bohemia, eventually moving into Europe, into Germany. And they came over to the United States in 1928 to perform on Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.
LYDEN: You know, it just so happens we try and do a book on each show. And this week, our book is called "Queen of the Air," which you may have heard of, or certainly you've heard of the aerialist Lillian Leitzel. She was part of a troop called the Flying Codonas. Her husband was Alfred Codona. I understand there was a bit of a rivalry when your family came from Europe and met the Mexican-born Alfred Codona.
WALLENDA: Our industry at that point especially was extremely competitive. And my great-grandfather, matter of fact, used to rehearse in the middle of the night so his other competitors couldn't see what he was doing. That's how competitive it was. So, yeah, absolutely, there was competitiveness throughout the industry, but I think that's what made our family who they were and made some of the greats, you know, that are out there, including Lillian Leitzel. And we have a poster up in my house of her and admire her dearly.
LYDEN: Yeah. Nik Wallenda, I just have to ask you, Leitzel, she did die tragically not because she made a mistake. The equipment breaks. Do you ever think about equipment?
WALLENDA: Yeah. It's - oh, absolutely. That's why my father is in charge of it, and my uncle is my lead engineer, because I know I can trust them with my life. Deaths are fairly rare, but I would say 95-plus percent are rigging related. It's not the actual performer. We trained to the extreme for the Grand Canyon.
I trained on a cable that was about 1000 feet long, lower to the ground, of course, and created wind gusts of 45 to 55 miles per hour, including wind speeds of 91 miles per hour, and walked in repetitions to the point where I was walking on that cable four times the distance I would walk over the Grand Canyon. I trained to grab that wire and hold on for 20 to 30 minutes. I also have rescue teams on standby that can be to me within 60 seconds no matter where I am on that wire.
LYDEN: And the next challenge?
WALLENDA: Well, there are many challenges that I have in the works, several dreams. I want to walk to the top of the Eiffel Tower, I want to walk over the pyramids in Egypt, the Great Wall of China. I'll start working on a walk in New York City hopefully coming up within a year.
LYDEN: Wow. I really can't wait to see where you go next and want to be there. Thank you.
WALLENDA: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.