Into the mystic: How Nik Wallenda takes us back in time

The Full Story Behind Tightrope Nik Wallenda's Chicago Crossings
The Full Story Behind Tightrope Nik Wallenda's Chicago Crossings

College Contributor Network

Nik Wallenda, the danger-prone highwire-walker of Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon, and now Chicago fame, is more akin to a time traveler than anything else. He arrives, he walks, and then he vanishes until his next performance. It is the perfect method of operations for a man who seems to belong in the past.

Watching Wallenda is like little else in the world of athletics, or even in the world of performance. I remember when he did his Grand Canyon walk in 2013. I was bumming around the house with my sisters when my father rushed inside -- he was home early from work -- and hollered for us to turn on the TV.

Discovery Channel. We switched the station and there before our eyes was a man locked in space over a vast gorge. He was perched atop a tiny wire, carrying a huge pole for balance. There was nothing below him, nothing to break his fall, and, as he inched further and further along, we were certain he would fall. He never did, and it was riveting.

When the performer, seventh in a long line of highwire artists, balanced 65 stories high over the Chicago River on Nov. 2, the feeling returned. I had forgotten about Nik Wallenda for over a year, and then, just like that, I was locked in all over again. Even when I went to the gym the next day and the monitors flashed highlights of the event with closed captioning, people were standing around gawking. Not a lot of things can do that.

You might peg Wallenda's act as something more toward art than athletics, and you might be right to an extent, but three things come back to me every time I watch him perform:

1) He must be in terrific shape and in terrific control of his body
2) There might not be anyone else in the world who can do this
3) This is nothing short of a spectacle. Other sports bring the flash and the lights and the thumping music and the fireworks -- this is simple, pure, thrilling entertainment.

That, essentially, is why Nik Wallenda matters in today's athletic landscape. All of our major sports resort to flashy marketing campaigns and booming loudspeakers and giant TV screens, and yet Wallenda manages to captivate us with his simple, singular performance. If you were scrolling through the channels on Sunday night and you landed on Wallenda's walk, the chances of you changing the station were slim. You had to see it out to the end. Didn't that feel refreshing?

The whole thing snuck up on us, drew us in for about 30 minutes of inescapable action, and then abruptly let us go again. No one tried to sell us anything. No one tried to sensationalize what happened. It was a simple, raw athletic performance, and it completely hooked us. Sports do not do that anymore. Few things can do that anymore. And all this can be reduced to a glorified tightrope act -- isn't that amazing?

With six generations of highwire acts behind him, Wallenda comes from a place where people were simply drawn to his act as an art form. Certainly, the man has to be in perfect form to do what he does, and it takes some serious athleticism, but the purity of every step on that wire hints at something a little greater than that.

Every step is a fine line between life and death. Every step is man saying that he can triumph over adversity. Every step is saying that man can thrive high above the ground, that limits are irrelevant, that earthly boundaries can be exceeded. You feel that weight when you watch -- it feels like history.

All sports used to be like this. We used to watch football and baseball and basketball and just marvel at the game and the performance. Every now and then, a transcendent talent like a LeBron James or a Peyton Manning or a Tiger Woods will turn our heads and strike us with their skill, ability, and dedication, but for the most part all we have from modern sports are over-analysis and sensual saturation.

When Nik Wallenda walks up on that wire, he reminds us each and every time what sports should be. It should be something that allows us to forget everything else and just watch. Just watch and be amazed.

The man will disappear quietly, and soon the sports world will rush back in to fill the gap with more noise. Some of us, however, will keep our eyes turned upward, waiting for the time traveler to return. Waiting for Nik Wallenda to capture our attention and bring it back to the heart of sports one more time.

Tyler Daswick is a junior at Northwestern University. He is a huge fan of the Green Bay Packers, Indiana Jones, and writing stories about cowboys and banditos. Follow him on Twitter: @AccordingtoDazz

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