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The Stress of the Stunt

Nik Wallenda has a lot of dreamer in him, but there are flashes when he's all business; when he becomes one of those people who constantly checks their smartphone mid-conversation and then stops talking, suddenly gripped by whatever he's reading.

Forgive him this. Between wrangling with the American network about the tether they're making him wear for this wire-walk and making repeated trips to his accountant, there's a lot of stress about traversing Niagara Falls.

No, the stress doesn't seem to be about the mist, or wind, or a cable dancing beneath his feet. His worries are about funding the walk and funding his future. So, there's not a lot of time to draw out the dreamer in him, or find a few words about the romance of the wire.

Thankfully he lives in a world surrounded by other dreamers and other legends of the circus. Sarasota is a performers' enclave and spending a few days in Nik's orbit meant meeting others who share the bug to both scare and wow audiences.

We chatted with Nik at his parent's house in a neighbourhood peppered with Wallendas, the name on multiple mailboxes.

Long ago the family patriarch divided up the property amongst his relatives (and performers he didn't have the cash to pay), so if you have a peek in the backyards you see high-wires and gymnastic rings and balancing poles lying in the grass.

Mario Wallenda's yard, a few over from Nik's parents, has a retired circus horse tethered to a tree. Mario is Nik's great uncle and seems the most wistful of the Wallendas, largely because he's unable to perform anymore. In 1962 he was part of a seven-person pyramid (a signature Wallenda high wire act) when the pyramid fell and performers went crashing to the mats below. Two died, but Mario survived, paralyzed for life. Decades later, he was able, with some complicated rigging, to roll his chair across a wire for a TV program, but never since. It was a fleeting moment he clearly savors.

"Once I got going... it was like, why haven't I been doing this? I wanted to go back out there and try to sell it a bit you know? Wave my arms around like 'oh my god I'm going to fall.'"

We're sitting in his carport in the sticky Florida heat and Mario is pouring over pictures of his days way up high. Asked about Nik and the tether he's being forced to wear by the American network broadcasting the walk and he grimaces. "Awful," says Mario.

" You can do anything with that...take that thing off and then show me how good you are and then I'll be impressed, but until then who gives a rats behind?"

His advice? He offers this with a genuine and broad smile; take it off Nik, take the tether off. Wallendas don't use safety devices and Mario is living proof of a good reason TO use them, but even he sees the tether as taking a bit of the "show" out of the show.

"What are they gonna do?" he asks, "Are they gonna shoot him? Why not bend down, take it off? If it was me and I was walking, man, I'd have a hell of a time, I'd d sell it... one foot slips off the wire... and you go... whooooaaah"

The performer. Aching for the crowd. The connection with the audience seems a real motivator for a Wallenda just a few yards over. He's Tino Wallenda, Nik's uncle. And his yard is right next to Nik's parents. But, you get the sense they aren't at all close. Tino's not home this day, he's on the road in Missouri and when a camera caught up with him to talk about his relationship with the wire he absolutely glowed.

"You see," he says, "the audience has diminished in size, but that's what makes a situation like this and what is the essence of circus, with a smaller group where you can actually see the sweat on the performers brow... there's a communication that happens between performer and audience and then a friendship grows, even for a brief time. That's what it's really all about."

It's true that circus acts don't draw like they used to and Nik has found a more modern way to market himself, but Tino finds the intimacy of tradition something worth hanging onto.

"I am 62-years-old and I have been rehearsing since I was seven-years-old. I rehearse continually til this day and will have to until I stop performing. Putting up equipment, stakes, hours of hard labor, repairing equipment, traveling, there is so much that is involved. But you see, I love being a performer, so those few fleeting moments that I have up there makes up for any kind of financial thing. If I think about finances, I would have never become a performer, would have never gotten on the tightrope."

He won't be in Niagara Falls for Nik's televised spectacular. He'll be performing with his family, thrilling small audiences sitting in a big top below him.

And loving it. It may not mean a huge payday, except it seems for his soul.

And that's a common thread in Sarasota. We capped off our time there in the cool and colourful bachelor pad of Jackie LeClair. He's long retired from the circus but his room is teeming with souvenirs and photos of a young, skinny and strong-as-heck Jackie, swinging from his ankles off wires and trapezes. He still sometimes works as a clown and still wishes he had the youth and opportunity of Nik Wallenda. He knew Karl Wallenda, shows us an oh-so-tiny costume hand-sewn for him by Karl's wife decades ago.

Jackie says he will watch every moment of the walk and imagine he's up there. "We are all going to go across the wire with him. Every circus person alive is going to go with him in heart and spirit because we're like a family. It would be like your son doing it. Same darn thing"

Like everyone else we spoke with, he's worried most about how Nik will manage mentally with that tether.

"Now, I would not want anything to happen him, especially break his spirit, that would be very dangerous, very bad too. That's a fright."

It's not that he's cavalier about Nik's physical safety, who wouldn't worry about a man tiptoeing across Niagara Falls? Even with a tether he could be seriously hurt, but Jackie seems most protective of Nik's heart and his passion for pushing limits. Now in his 80's, Jackie reacts almost like Mario did. He talks faster; he's more animated when chatting about the wire and the audience. He wants Nik to love every second up there, for all of them whose bodies won't let them even try anymore. He too wants to see a dramatic twist; he too wants Nik to lose the tether

"He could disappear into some of the mist and come out the other side and he doesn't have it. Nobody could say he took it off. That's just us circus folks fantasizing I suppose."

Surrounded by his pictures and his memories. He can still sing the tunes and tell rapid-fire jokes. But to have the freedom from fear, to know all eyes are on you as you defy gravity, well, that he misses. When Nik walks he'll clearly have legions of performers like Jackie, Tino and Mario, in a way, holding him up.
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