Nik Wallenda has vivid memories of his elders saying in their deep German accents, "Evel's coming over." The world-famous daredevil Evel Knievel was his great-grandfather's best friend. "He was at the house all the time," Wallenda tells 'Men's Journal.'
That was back when the Wallenda family name was at least as well-known as Knievel's. For generations, the "Flying Wallendas" defined the circus high-wire act, performing such stunts as a seven-person chair pyramid with no safety net. Their legacy was cut short in 1978 when patriarch Karl Wallenda fell to his death from a tightrope in Puerto Rico.
Nik Wallenda began walking the wire at age two, and by the time he was a teenager, he'd decided he wanted to restore the family name high atop the stunt world. Two years ago he and his mother, Delilah, completed the walk that killed his great-grandfather. Last year he became the first person to walk directly over Niagara Falls on a wire.
When he first set the plans, Wallenda traveled to Arizona and did what he always does before a new walk: He sat on the edge and envisioned himself making the crossing. "When I walk to the edge of a 20-story building – hey, even a four-story building – my heart jumps," he says. "It's just natural. We all have a conscience. I will never lose that respect for the height."
Yet walking the wire is second nature for Wallenda. He practices in his Florida backyard on a tightrope a few feet from the ground, using airboat propellers to simulate wind gusts. His practice routine includes "quite a bit" of cardio, but with tightrope walking, the main preparation is simply visualizing success.
"You can go into a haunted house and be completely calm – 'Hey, this is just a gimmick' – or you can be scared to death," he says. "It's wherever you let your mind go . . . I've learned through struggles, even in my marriage, that man, your mind is powerful. That's a key to living life in general, not just walking the wire."
When he walked across Niagara Falls, ABC (which broadcast the event) required him to wear a tether. The network had seen footage of a walk he did two weeks prior, in Baltimore, where he'd whispered to a friend, "Hey, want to see a crowd of people scream?" Midway through his walk, he pretended to slip. "I'm an entertainer, a showman," says this generation's Wallenda, who has three children. The network, he says, "freaked out. It was extremely disappointing."
For the Grand Canyon walk, the Discovery Channel is not asking him to wear a harness. "You can never make everyone happy," he says. "I get emails from people saying 'You fool – you have a family!' But if I have to wear a tether – 'You're a sissy.'"
When he arrived on the Canadian side after his Falls walk, he was ceremoniously asked the purpose of his visit. "To inspire people all over the world," he replied.
"All my autographs say 'Never give up,'" Wallenda tells 'Men's Journal.' He hears not just from people who have set up tightropes in their backyards, but from cancer patients and people confined to wheelchairs. "So many people give up their dreams because your mind will try to talk you out of things," he says. When he hears a voice trying to dissuade him, he just walks away.