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Nik Wallenda

The Wallendas Continue to Fly

Gettyimages | Brad Barket
By Sharon Oliver

Modern-day wire walker Nik Wallenda is re-introducing the world to the craft which made his family famous. A seventh-generation member of the Flying Wallendas family, Nik appeared on ABC Wednesday night to show viewers his death-defying stunt of walking across the Masaya Volcano in Nicaragua on a high-wire.

This marked the first time in history a tightrope walk across a volcano had been done. Nik admitted to the special's host, Chris Harrison, that he did face strong winds during the act and now hopes he will make Sports Center's Top 10. So just who are the Flying Wallendas?

Acrobats and Daredevils

Nik Wallenda
Gettyimages | NurPhoto

According to The Flying Wallendas's website, the family of acrobats, animal trainers, aerialists, clowns and jugglers started performing in a circus troupe in Old Bohemia as far back as 1780. Bohemia is now part of Czech-Republic. By the late 1800s, the family, eventually led by patriarch Karl Wallenda, became famous for their flying trapeze expertise.

As a boy, Karl's abusive father left family, leaving him with the responsibility of helping to support the family by doing tricks in beer halls, working in a coal mine and performing with a traveling circus at age 11.

The Flying Wallendas Officially Established in the 1920s

The Flying Wallendas
Gettyimages | Bettmann

When Karl Wallenda, who was Nik's great-grandfather, was 16, he answered an ad in the paper for an "experienced hand balancer with courage." Wire-walker Louis Weitzmann wanted young Karl to do a handstand on his feet as he laid down on the wire cable. By 1922, Karl felt he learned enough from his mentor to put together his own act.

He recruited his brother Herman, Joseph Geiger and Helen Kreise, who would later become his second wife and for most of the 1930s and 40s, The Great Wallendas headlined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

A Family Marred by Tragedies

The Flying Wallendas
Wikimedia | https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Flying_Wallendas_in_Sarasota,_Florida_(9128664897).jpg

While performing in Detroit in 1962, the Wallendas seven-person chair stunt collapsed and three men fell. Karl's nephew Dieter Schepp and his son-in-law Dick Faughnan, who was married to Karl's daughter Jenny, were killed. Dick and Jenny were Nik's grandparents. The third man who fell was Karl's son Mario, who was left paralyzed by the accident.

One of the deadliest, but not only, incidents happened in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944 when a fire broke. All Wallendas managed to escape but 168 people lost their lives. Their luck didn't last long. In 1963, Karl's sister-in-law Rietta Grotefent fell 100 feet to her death while performing and in 1972, his brother-in-law Richard "Chico" Guzman was killed during a performance when his balancing pole accidentally came in contact with a live electrical wire.

The Death of Karl Wallenda and Family Legacy

Karl Wallenda
Wikimedia | https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karl_Wallenda_in_Sarasota,_Florida.jpg

In March 1978, 73-year-old Karl Wallenda lost his balance while attempting to walk between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Wind gusts of up to 30 mph whipped up around Karl, sending him crashing 120 feet to his death. Karl's son, Mario, told the Herald-Tribune that following his father's death, feuds within the family began.

However, prior to the tragedy, fractions had already begun. Some family members felt Karl was too old to continue performing and felt uncomfortable working with him. Other rifts and performing accidents followed. Yet, to this day, there are sixth and seventh generations of Wallendas still performing.

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