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'Heart-stopping': Nik Wallenda walks the high wire

January Holmes
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SARASOTA, Fla. — Acrophobia isn't in Nik Wallenda's vocabulary.

The high-wire stuntman proved that last week when he walked a high-wire strapped between the balconies of the One Watergate Condominium and the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton Hotel at more than 200 feet up in the air — without a net.

The morning stroll — to promote the upcoming season of Circus Sarasota — was about 16 stories high with a distance of more than 600 feet.

Just looking up at the lone wire was enough to make one's heart sink with fear. Watching the 31-year-old Wallenda on it was nearly paralyzing for some.

"Heart-stopping," said Deborah Kehoe, 62, of Bradenton, who brought her husband, Jim, and her Massachusetts guests, Marilyn and Paul Gigliotti, to watch the event. "It was absolutely heart-stopping."

But Wallenda, who comes from seven generations of high-wire walkers, made the dangerous feat, which took about 10 minutes to complete, look all too easy, even with slightly gusty winds and a handful of helicopters buzzing nearby.

Star of this season's Circus Sarasota performances, Wallenda is a world record holder on the high wire. The Sarasota native set the Guinness world record for the longest distance and greatest height traveled via bicycle on a wire — 235 feet long and 13 stories high.

He performed Thursday's walk above a cluster of trees and crowds with frozen faces of suspense watching the daredevil in his element.

A few minutes into the walk, Wallenda knelt on one knee — something he repeated several times to keep himself steady against the wind before getting back up. Each time the crowd cheered. The show stopper, though, was when Wallenda got on his back, lying face-up on the wire.

The crowd gasped with a chorus of, "Oh my!" and "Wow!"

"I can't believe he's doing this," an onlooker said.

"I was just dying watching him," said Marilyn Gigliotti.

Wallenda's wife and three children, ages 6 to 12, met him on other side with hugs before he waved to the crowd and blew a kiss.

High on the wire, Wallenda was full of concentration, praying — and thinking about lunch, he said later during a news conference. "I'm carrying on a legacy," he said. "Seven generations of history. ... I'm standing on the shoulders of giants. My great-grandfather Karl Wallenda is definitely my hero in life. If he was here, he'd be doing this."

Karl Wallenda died after a fall from a 10-story wire walk on a windy day in Puerto Rico in 1978. He was 73.

Though Nik Wallenda — whose family came from Germany in 1928 to work for the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus — has walked wires across the world, this was his first hometown performance. He said he already has the permits to be the first person in the world to do a mile-long high-wire walk across the Grand Canyon. A date hasn't been set yet, though. A Niagara Falls stunt is in the works, too.

During his Circus Sarasota run, Feb. 12-28, he'll be performing his great-grandfather's famously dangerous seven-person pyramid — which led two participants to their death during a Detroit performance in 1962, according to www.wallenda.com.

"If he can do this, that's going to be a piece of cake," Deborah Kehoe said.

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