Nik Wallenda was within maybe a dozen feet of completing his world-record bike ride on a high wire strung 135 feet above the streets of Newark, N.J., when he suddenly stopped. With hundreds on the street below and millions of TODAY viewers watching live at home holding their collective breath, the aerialist’s bike started to slide backward on the upward slope of the cable, its bare metal rims unable to get a firm grip on cold steel cable.
“It was a little bit hairy for a minute there,” Wallenda would say after he finally coaxed the bike to the makeshift platform at the end of the 250-foot-long cable. “It was real scary.”
It couldn’t have been that scary, though, because moments later Wallenda told NBC’s Kerry Sanders on the roof of the Prudential Center about his next stunt.
“I’m going to walk across the Grand Canyon next spring,” the daring young man told an incredulous Sanders. “We already have the permits sealed, and we’re ready to go.”
Pause for a phone call
Back in the TODAY studio in New York, Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Ann Curry were equally incredulous. “My bladder can’t take it,” Vieira said of the prospect of a Grand Canyon crossing.
The three co-hosts had watched along with everyone else as the 29-year-old daredevil set out shortly after 8:30 a.m. on his record attempt. Wallenda began by walking across the cigar-thick cable with a 45-foot balancing pole.
Halfway across, he sat down on the wire. He put the balancing pole on his lap and hooked his left foot in a guy wire for balance before pulling a cell phone out of his hip pocket and punching in a number. A moment later, he was talking to the co-hosts as calmly as if he were sitting on a sofa back home.
“Why are you calling us, Nik?” Vieira asked.
Video: Prepping for high-wire stunt “I was looking for you,” Wallenda said cheerily. “Where are you?” He said that he was hoping one of the crew would have come to ride across the wire on his shoulders.
Asked how the stunt was proceeding, Wallenda reported, “It’s a little windier than I expected it to be.” But, he added, “It feels OK.”
Wallenda admitted that sitting down on the wire is easy. “Getting up is the hard part,” he said, before ringing off with a simple “I gotta go.”
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He slipped the phone back into his pocket, then quickly got back on his feet, putting his left foot on the wire and slipping his right knee into position behind him.
It didn’t look hard; it looked impossible.
A sudden slip
Several yards from the end of his walk, Wallenda stopped, rested the pole on one thigh and waved to the crowd. Resuming his journey, he suddenly wobbled and buckled at the knees, squatting on the wire, certain death awaiting him if he fell.
He would say later that he was distracted by a piece of tape on the wire where it wasn’t supposed to be and lost his concentration.
Video: A perilous walk “I actually slipped,” he said. “I lost focus there for a moment and fortunately caught my balance.”
But then, Wallenda has been training since he was 4 years old for such moments. When he was a child, his parents would throw things at him and even took shots at him with a BB gun while he was on the wire, training him to deal with every conceivable distraction.
It took Wallenda more than 5 minutes to cross the wire on foot, and another 5 minutes or so for his assistants to help him get his bike on the wire. It was a standard, off-the-shelf bike. The handlebars had been removed, since there is no necessity to steer, and the tires were taken off the rims, whose concave surfaces fit over the wire. A balancing pole completed Wallenda’s rig.
The world-record bike ride — the highest and farthest ever — took just a couple of minutes ... but long, tension-filled seconds ticked by at the end when Wallenda started sliding backward.
“The back wheel started to slip,” he explained. “It was a little nerve-racking at the end.”
Video: Daredevil talks about high-wire stunt He sounded casual, but Wallenda knows just how dangerous the stunt was. It was 20 years ago that his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, plunged to his death at the age of 73 while walking a tightrope high above the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Three other members of the famous family have also died in falls, and one was paralyzed in one. Another Wallenda died when a rigging pole contacted a high-tension line.
When he got to the platform at the end of the ride, Nik Wallenda jumped onto the cornice of the Prudential Center, then from there onto the roof, where he hugged his three children and his wife, who had been cheering him on. A representative from Guinness World Records presented him with a framed certificate confirming his world record.
“I feel great,” a beaming Wallenda told Sanders. “It felt great.”
Grand Canyon, here he comes.
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