Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Walking with God

Famed daredevil's memoir puts high-wire work in the context of a higher power

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Why anyone in his right mind would want to walk hundreds of metres above Niagara Falls on a wire or hang from a helicopter 80 metres above the ground by his teeth is unfathomable to many.

Yet for Nik Wallenda, the Florida-based high-wire artist whose recent crossing of the Grand Canyon on a tightrope was televised live, the answer would likely be "Why not?"

Wallenda worked with David Ritz, known for his collaborative autobiographies of such musicians as Janet Jackson and Aretha Franklin, to produce this light, easy-to-read and upbeat memoir.

Wallenda lives to perform death-defying stunts, repeatedly putting his life on the line. He is listed seven times in the Guinness Book of World Records, perhaps most notably for his June 2012 walk across Niagara Falls.

In Balance, he attempts to tell the story of why he, a 34-year-old married father of three, does what he does and how.

Balance is his overriding theme, affecting not only his high-wire work but also his family life, conflicts within his own personality and his Christian faith.

At the top of his game -- or rather wire -- Wallenda shares his life lessons, his optimistic attitude and his persistence and drive, which continually help him to overcome obstacles but also get him into trouble.

It all begins with a dream. In it, Wallenda sees a man dressed as a circus performer beside a magnificent horseshoe-shaped waterfall. He speaks only four words: "Walk over the falls."

Over the years, the dreams keep recurring in different forms. The young Wallenda never fails to be excited by them.

He soon realizes that the man in his dreams is none other than his famous high-wire-performing great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, who fell to his death during a stunt in 1978.

Born 10 months later, Nik Wallenda is the seventh generation of the famed Wallenda circus family. His parents are well-known circus performers. They are also devout Christians.

He begins wire-walking in the back yard of their working-class Sarasota, Fla., neighbourhood at the age of two. It is in his blood. And he loves it.

As he watches his parents walk the wire as a little boy, the feat seems "both wonderful and natural. Naturally I'm moved to do the same."

But as Wallenda grows, he overhears his parents' private, frequent conversations about the financially desperate circumstances that haunt them.

"In the first two decades of my life, I became increasingly aware of a dark cloud hanging over circus life," he writes.

"From that first step on the wire at age two, it was my passion, but a passion born at a time of impending death."

Despite his parents' dire warnings about pursuing a career as a tightrope walker, Wallenda continues to dream.

Amazingly unafraid of the wire, but driven by fears of financial ruin, Wallenda works obsessively as a teen at any job to help his family. He banks $24,000 by the time he is 18.

He marries the girl he fell in love with as a teenager, a fellow circus performer who knows the ropes and is extremely supportive, because she was raised by another circus family.

As he begins to pursue his dream and save the family legacy, he becomes thoughtless, controlling, cocky and egotistical.

He realizes that he grew up in a world of big-time egos and that the need for the spotlight is in his DNA and essential to his career.

Seeking the next big thing, the next most impossibly challenging stunt and the publicity and media that go along with it is all part of the job, he says.

But as it filters over into his family life and his marriage is threatened, Wallenda realizes that he has to change.

To achieve more balance in his life and to convert these traits from negatives into positives, he turns to his own Christian faith.

Balance is unabashedly religious but not overly so. Wallenda's secular fans will still find the account of his feats interesting.

This is a fairly quick read, told in simple, unadorned language with short, uncomplicated sentences. But despite its spectacular subject matter, it lacks suspense.

To be fair, watching Wallenda perform live on the wire is nerve-racking and heart-stopping. Reading about it after the fact is not the same.

And, yet, if all you get is that this is a story of an engaging fellow who loves his family and who never gives up, constantly facing challenges and overcoming the seemingly impossible with his optimism, then that is worth something.

Winnipeg writer Cheryl Girard has been to Niagara Falls, where she was thankful for the railing and the sidewalk.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 A1

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