While it may be neglected in a typical workout routine, balance is a skill key to every sport. Are you an agile skateboarder or free runner who can do parkour while tapping your smartphone, or are you a bit on the wobbly side?
No athlete demonstrates balance more expertly than a tight rope walker: a gravity-immune high-wire artist who can keep his footing while threatened with a significant, potentially very dangerous, drop.
Meet five of the world’s greatest ever tight rope walkers.
1824 – 1897
Jean François Gravelet-Blondin looms as large as any other figure in the history of tightrope. The French uber-acrobat transcends the sport. Above all, he is famous for countless daredevil exploits across Niagara Gorge on the American-Canadian border, beginning in June 1959. Just to prove his love of theater and bending his limits, Blondin varied the act dramatically. One time he crossed the gorge blindfolded, one time he was in a sack. He also performed the feat shoving a wheelbarrow on stilts, carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back and sitting down midway while he fried and ate an omelet.
Blondin was such a hit that his name became synonymous with the term “tightrope artist” — people talked about “daredevil Blondins”. Plus, two roads in his late-life hometown, Ealing, London are named in his honor: Blondin Avenue and Niagara Avenue.
The Great Farini
1838 – 1929
Niagara Falls holds a definite fascination for tightrope walkers, and the Great Farini was no exception. Like Charles Blondin, the Great Farini was a tightrope legend, crossing Niagara Falls repeatedly and performing some pretty insane tricks while he was at it, including somersaulting, crossing with a man on his back and hanging by his feet.
His real name was William Leonard Hunt, but he lived up to his grand stage name. Circus historians credit the Great Farini as the mastermind behind the classic showbiz stunt “human cannonball.” The Great Farini staged many of his shows at London’s Royal Aquarium, even teaming up with legendary promoter P.T. Barnum before heading to Africa. There, Farini supposedly became the first white man to survive crossing a new threshold – the Kalahari Desert – on foot. Until his death, the Great Farini kept busy and interested by inventing things from folding theatre seats to the modern parachute. Like many tightrope walkers, he was a truly intriguing character.
1899 – 1973
If you want to scale the heights in the field of tightrope walking, it helps if you have a cool name. Australian tightrope walker Con Colleano had three: his given name, Wizard of the Wire and the Toreador of the Wire. He was the first person to pull off a high-wire forward somersault and he became one of the most famous and well-paid circus maestros of his age.
It helped that his background was wild. His father – supposedly a freed convict – made a shady living from sideshow “take-on-all-comers” boxing and gambling: great inspiration for a precarious tightrope career. In 1997, Colleano was honored when the Australian post featured a modern poster of him on their postage stamp.
The German tightrope walker Falko Traber is a direct descendant of one of his nation’s most distinguished circus families: the Zugspitze tightrope artists. The Traber family’s name stems from antics conducted against the backdrop of Germany’s highest mountain, 3,000-meter Zugspitze. Born during a tightrope tour of France, Falko Traber visited over 40 countries with his family. Falko is the last of his brothers still to walk the wire — his brother Charlie died in 2007 at 54.
Falko remains one of the sport’s biggest stars. Proving that he is more than a showman, Traber has set many records, including crossing 700 meters of rope on the rear wheel of his specially designed motorbike at a height of 80 meters, spending 13 days and nights in a cage occupied by several fully-grown white tigers and walking the longest freely hanging ropeway in the world: the 3S-Umlaufbahn at Kitzbuehel in Tyrol, Austria, at a height of over 400 meters. Traber thinks nothing of standing on his head on a bicycle’s steering fork.
If you want to become a tightrope walker, it helps if you have the precarious sport in your blood. American Nik Wallenda comes from a high-wire artist clan called the Flying Wallendas and was inspired primarily by his grandfather, Karl Wallenda. The world’s leading tightrope walker, Wallenda is also one of the most prominent daredevils in any extreme sport. The self-styled King of the Wire, who proceeds without a safety net, holds an incredible six Guinness World Records for various acrobatic exploits.
Wallenda is most famous for walking a tightrope strung across Niagara Falls on June 15, 2012, braving winds and spray. Last year, he set a world record by walking the Wheel of Death atop the 23-story Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City and tightrope walked with his mother between the two towers of Condado Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico. The latter stunt was a re-creation of the one that killed Karl Wallenda, and in light of that angle, might just be one of the boldest ever accomplished in tightrope history.