OK… I’m going to hazard a guess you'll be surprised to discover there's a group called Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI). Am I right? Well, let me tell you, not only does this lofty body exist, but the enthusiastic membership has a fancy logo and even boasts an annual convention... you know, so folks who enjoy ingesting long, sharp, cold, metal bayonets into their inner sanctums can convocate and pay homage to veteran sword swallowers.
But here's the thing: with the SSAI, we're talking about an organization that promotes the annual World Sword Swallower's Day (who knew?). The association boasts members from the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, and more.
Mind you, it's not all fun 'n games: the SSAI blog reports that Matty "The Blade" Henshaw – an Australian renowned for holding the world record of swallowing 3,782 swords in one year – died at age 50. It was an apparent suicide.
Now, why am I going on about sword swallowers? Well, my newest book has just been published: “Pushing The Boundaries! How To Get More Out Of Life” and, while I profile many well-known people from around the world, chances are you don’t know Johnny Strange. He’s a sword swallower.
"Strange by name, strange by nature" Johnny tells me as he sits between performances in the living room of his mate's flat in London, England. He and I are chatting about the art of sword swallowing, where I learn that it originated over 4,000 years ago in India. In fact, Dan Meyer, President of Sword Swallower's Association International and himself an experienced enthusiast says, "It requires the practitioner to use mind-over-matter techniques to repress natural reflexes in order to insert solid steel blades from 15 to 25 inches down the esophagus and into the stomach.”
There are currently less than a few dozen full-time professional sword swallowers actively performing around the world."
Hmmmm... wonder why so few participants?
But back to that World Sword Swallower's Day. To initiate this grand phenomenon, 22 brave and daring devotees recently gulped down nearly 138 feet of solid steel at several Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium locations worldwide. Apparently, all that steel went down the hatch without a scratch. The swallowers, four of them ladies, ingested 84 swords in total!
As rare as these practitioners are, leave it to me to connect mano-a-mano with a charter SSAI member: Johnny Strange. Yet, as I soon discover, sword swallowing is just one facet of this man's astounding array of routines.
"I get referred to as a dare devil stuntman a lot," Johnny tells me. "But my preferred job title is simply 'entertainer'. I choose to entertain in different ways – from telling jokes, demonstrating the unique things my body is capable of, sword swallowing, circus skills and bizarre sideshow stunts.”
“Telling jokes?” I ask. “Johnny, it seems to me this is pretty serious stuff to be joking about...”
“I like to keep the audience on the edge of their seats,” he explains with great enthusiasm, “keeping people on a roller coaster of emotions. I could literally die halfway through the show – and then, just as you're about to swallow the sword, you make a joke. People laugh nervously but then you take it back up to the danger level again. You're playing with those emotions."
My goal in the profile I write about him (one of 32 in the book) is to discover what makes Johnny Strange tick. How can he erase fear and take risks with ease?
"I am constantly trying to push boundaries and training to do things that other people can’t do," he explains.
"Why?" I ask.
"Because it makes me feel like I’m always moving forward and trying to better myself. I love being able to show people something they’ve never seen before, things they never thought existed."
This desire to excel has resulted in our man shattering numerous Guinness World Records and earning his nickname: “The man with ears of steel”.
"Ah yes," he says. "My abnormally strong, stretched ears proved tough enough to set the official Guinness World Record for ‘The heaviest weight lifted by pierced ears’."
"And that weight was...?"
"I managed to lift a 32-pound cast iron load attached to carabineers hooked through just the piercings in my ear lobes," he tells me. He’s saying this like it’s just a walk in the park. But I'm grimacing in discomfort.
And he's not done. "Next, just to take it up a notch, I pulled an aircraft for over 20 feet using nothing more than my ears."
Yeah, sure, why wouldn't a fella?
Johnny's explaining this, by the way, as though we're talking about lifting a thimble of rice or pulling a balloon through a crowd. Nothing extraordinary, ya know!
"You just push yourself a little bit more at a time," he says. "You just keep adding a little bit more weight. And hopefully you stop before you push yourself just that little bit too far. I'm still working on finding out where that boundary is. Until you reach it, you just don't know..."
Johnny is nothing if not philosophical about this. "Peter, you only get one shot at life, and you have to make the most of it,” he tells me. “Try to pack in as much as you can... It's OK to wander outside your comfort zone, not necessarily to do dangerous things like I do, but whatever you want to do to challenge yourself. You can do it!"
"Johnny, let me ask you: do you ever experience fear when doing your feats?"
He stops to consider. Then: "No... nope... don't think so..."
Clearly, this is new territory for him.
Interesting that in another profile in “Pushing The Boundaries”, Nik Wallenda – the man who walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope – told me the same thing: "Fear isn't a concept I even understand.” He confessed. “Fear isn't a feeling I've ever encountered."
Some of Johnny Strange's Guinness World Records include the most apples held in the mouth and chain sawed in half (please! I don't want to even think of that!), the most apples chain sawed out of someone else’s mouth (enough!), the most animal traps released on the body (ouch!), the fastest time to break 16 concrete blocks on the body and the most melons chopped in half on a person’s stomach with a samurai sword while they lay on a bed of nails.
But we're not done. Not nearly done.
Mind you, that’s enough for now. You can read more about Johnny Strange as well as 31 other individuals whose amazing lives I profile in “Pushing The Boundaries!”, available at pushingtheboundaries.life, through orders at your local bookstore or from Amazon, Indigo/Chapters, Barnes & Noble, etc. As Jack Canfield, co-author of the "Chicken Soup For The Soul®" series says in my book’s Foreword, "Having the conviction to reach beyond your fears and take chances means you’re ready to achieve lasting success."