This 76 year-old grandmother is still swaying on a pole that’s 110 feet in the air.
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“I love performing. The adrenaline flows when you’re up there,” says Carla Wallenda, the matriarch of America’s high-flying family, who shows no signs of slowing down. “If I’m depressed or upset, it all goes away. I plan to keep performing until I can’t climb that pole anymore.”
That determination has never dimmed even though the family suffered from the very public death of Carla’s father Karl Wallenda in 1978 while performing in Puerto Rico.
“Accidents will happen no matter where you are,” she says. “My father taught us when the Lord says it’s your time, you’re gonna go.”
Her daughter Rietta, who walks the wire and performs the sway pole like mom, vividly recalls that dark day.
“I couldn’t tell how windy it was until my grandfather actually got up on the wire. He got about three quarters of the way through and was having a tremendous struggle and I was beginning to think he’s not going to be able to recover,” she says. “Before I could do anything, my grandfather lost contact with the wire and he fell.”
Now from her family’s historic practice grounds in Sarasota, Florida, where she perfects new acts with her daredevil brother Rick and her daughter Lyric, a seventh generation aerialist, Rietta says, “You don’t ever really recover from it, you just learn to live with it.”
Arriving in the United States in the late twenties, the family invented the four-person pyramid atop the high wire and has gone on to perform record-breaking stunts across the country. Most recently, last summer Nik Wallenda crossed Niagara Falls in a live televised event.
But for all of their death defying acrobatics, perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Wallenda business is staying relevant and making money. “Right now the economy is down for everybody so we have to adjust to that as well,” says Rick.
“My husband and I are always brainstorming: what are other companies not doing? I learn new acts, my mother learns new acts, and we’re coming up with crazy characters that are going to pop,” says Lyric. “We all have to pay our bills. We all have to eat.”
Given the vast circus competition and the obvious economic challenges facing the profession, it takes a true love of the Wallenda’s timeless daring acts of entertainment to keep the family legacy—and business—alive.
“When I was a child, I wanted to go to school to be a normal kid and that lasted six months,” says Lyric. “Then I was calling my mom, ‘Please, please I need to get back out on the road.’ Now if I’m home for more than two weeks, I get antsy.”
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