When I began profiling individuals for my newest book "Pushing The Boundaries", there was a name that just had to make the short list: Nik Wallenda. Why? Because he's the man who's walked across Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. That meant he's a guy who colors outside the lines, thinks outside the box. It meant I had to interview him, short and simple. And yet, with someone so famous, it's never quite that simple. Persistence and patience come to bear as you sweat out the handlers put in place to protect the celebrity from casual investigators.
"You know, fear isn't a concept I even understand," Nik is telling me as we settle in the den of his modern home near Sarasota, Florida, my determination having paid off. I've come to the state to interview Nik and two other contenders for the book.
"Who cares if you walk across Niagara Falls," he asks. "Or the Grand Canyon? It doesn't matter. But if you can make a lasting imprint in someone's life: There! Then you've done something!”
Fair enough, but try as I might, there's not a hope I'll ever understand what's going on in this guy's cranium. Seriously. Walking on a tiny cable over Niagara Falls? Strolling blindfolded on a tightrope between two Chicago skyscrapers? Executing the highest bicycle ride on a wire? I mean, who does this!?
Nik Wallenda, that's who. A man who is surprisingly – dare I say it – grounded.
"I'm expressing myself through performing," Nik tells me. "Now, Peter, I'll admit there are times when I'm on the wire and I'll be maybe 1,600 feet up over a canyon and I'll think, 'What am I doing out here? What kind of job do I have?' So sure, I do think of it from time to time, but more in a 'This is crazy what I do!' sense. Still, I find it strange that people don't walk the wire. It's what our family does. It’s normal."
Yeah, but he's walking on a cable the size of a nickel!
"I'm alive when I'm on that wire!" he explains. "For me, it's just life. It's more of an art form than anything. It may be hundreds of feet above the street but to me, it's just what I do. What's not normal to some is normal to others. That's very much the case in what I do: it's normal to walk the wire!"
"But surely this is pushing the boundaries, right?" I ask.
"That's a hard question to answer," he responds. "My family started back in the 1780s so to me, it's more... just life. When I heard my father quote my great-grandfather with, ‘Life is on the wire, everything else is just waiting’… the words resonated deep within my soul. I vowed to be a hero like Karl Wallenda."
OK, but it's an art form that can kill you. That great-grandfather he refers to – Karl Wallenda – died at age 73 while walking between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico. When Nik was just four years old, he watched the film of his ancestor stumbling, falling to his death. I've seen it too. Frankly, I have to look away: I can't watch. But Nik knows Karl died because of improper rigging. He's bound and determined that will never be his fate.
One thing that's clear: what Nik Wallenda does is a calling. Unavoidable. After all, he flirted with the idea of dodging the family line of work and becoming a doctor. But he just couldn't get into it.
"Are you saying you can't escape your job?" I ask. "Is that fair?"
He pauses to think. This is a man who offers considered responses to questions, not just rote replies. "That's a great question, Peter… Yeah, I guess there are many reasons why I can't escape it. Because I love it.”
We turn to the concept of risk. I'm intrigued because Nik's a guy with a wife and three kids. Surely he doesn't want to put their future in jeopardy.
"Am I risking my life?” he says. “Yes. And I have to respect that. I'll never get to the point where I don't respect it, because that's when it will come back to get you."
I remind Nik that he's said he'll be retiring by the time he's 50. That’s 13 years from now as we talk. His reply, slightly hesitant, suggests the jury's still out.
"Yeah well... it has to do more with physical conditioning. Can I hold on where my great-grandfather couldn't? Is my body physically able to? He wasn't able to recognize that because, as with all of us, we feel like we're still as young as we once were. But there are risks that come with the physical part, as you lose your strength etc., and it becomes more and more dangerous. So for me, it wouldn't be to retire altogether because I can't sit still for more than 30 seconds. But it would be to pass on to the next generation through public speaking and inspiring people, which I do a lot of now... Just like my parents have done with me."
"How much of a part does ego play?” I ask.
“There's definitely a lot of ego in our industry," Nik admits. "But the more success I've attained, the less ego I have about it. Because I think ego is often driven by jealousy, envy. And that's the pride side of things. That's not what life's about. Life's about passing it on. There's more pride in that."
“Do you consider yourself courageous?" I ask.
“Another great question... hmmmm.... I consider our armed forces to be courageous. Our policemen. Our firefighters. Being courageous is, in my opinion, being a hero."
"Respect has to be earned," Nik adds. "I hope what I do inspires people around the world to reach for the skies."
And if that's the balance pole that keeps Nik Wallenda from falling, he's just fine with that.