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Nik Wallenda on His Grand Canyon Tightrope Walk: ‘We All Stare Death in the Face Daily’

As he prepares to cross with no net or harness, he says the only things that scare him are elephants

Nik Wallenda is about to walk a tighrope over a canyon, with no net. He'll wear workout pants, a T-shirt, and moccasins his mother made, but no harness. Only a 43-pound pole he uses to balance and his lifetime of preparation will spare him from falling the height of the Empire State Building.

Asked what scares him, Wallenda takes a long time to answer: Elephants.

That means the 34-year-old will probably have nothing to fear Sunday, as Discovery airs his feat worldwide under the somewhat understated title, "Skywire Live With Nik Wallenda." He tends to downplay everything about his crossing of the Little Colorado River gorge, near the Grand Canyon — to the extent that anyone can downplay walking a wire no thicker than a tennis ball over a vast chasm in the Earth.

"I've got three children and a wife," Wallenda told TheWrap. "And if I thought there was even a small chance of me losing my life Sunday, I wouldn't be doing it."

Wallenda's previous feats including walking a line over Niagara Falls, chatting with ABC as the waters raged beneath. His family of daredevils, The Flying Wallendas, includes a great-grandfather who died at 73 while attempting a tightrope walk at a much lower height than the one Wallenda will look down on Sunday. 

We talked to him about why he isn't freaking out.

Tim Molloy: I've been to the Grand Canyon, and was scared to stand at the edge of it. Where did you get the idea to do about the most frightening thing a human being could do?
Nick Wallenda: Well, that's my job. It's been my family's job for seven generations and 200 years, and it's been a dream of mine since I was a teenager. My parents would tour all over the world and similar to Niagara Falls, as we were touring, we stopped by and visited the Grand Canyon. I have never forgotten that image, and always thought, I want to be the first person in the world… It was almost like a race: I don't want anyone to do it before me. Not that there's a whole lot of people who would.

It's a dream come true. I know that sounds crazy. It's a nightmare come true to most. But I started walking over a wire at the age of 2. It really comes down to training and preparation. Anyone can do anything they want in life, within reality. You can't fly, of course.

Can you talk about your preparation?
This wire is about a thousand feet long that I have here in Florida. Walked two to three times in a row with heat, first of all. Yesterday was about 101 with the heat index, which is great practice because we're expecting 96 or 97 degrees out there. It’s a little drier there. However, I've also trained in winds. Really the unknowns are winds in the canyon. We've done a lot of studying. I trained with my wind machines with wind gusts of 45 to 55 mph and then a steady wind of 91 mph.

Dear God.
I also had the opportunity to train with Mother Nature. We had Tropical Storm Andrea come through about a week and a half ago and I was on the wire in 52 mph gusts and torrential downpour for about 45 minutes.

Your great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, died falling from a high wire in 30 mph winds.
He did, and I don’t even think it was 30 mph winds. I think it was 10 to 20 at most. Winds had nothing to do with the loss of his life. The loss of his life resulted from improper rigging, first of all. The wire was not stabilized properly, it was something he had never trained for, and he did what we're all taught: If there's an emergency, you go down to that wire, you hug that wire and you wait for help. Well, he went down to that wire at 73 years old with an injured collar bone and a double hernia and couldn't hold on. And we've learned lessons from that: A, there's a time to retire. And B, you'd better be in the right physical condition. You'd better be ready for anything you might experience while you're up there.

If he was my age, 34, making that walk, there is not even the slightest doubt in my mind he would have been fine. … He should have retired sooner.

Is this about confronting your mortality? Walking up to death and laughing at it?
I don't think so. Because I trained for this. It's not as though I'm you, saying I'm going to walk across the wire on Sunday. This is someone who's literally dedicated my entire life to what I'm doing. This isn't my first rodeo for sure.

There is danger there. But so is getting in your car and driving on the highway.

I hate to say it, but if you've got to go — and we all do — is falling into the Grand Canyon while attempting something amazing a way you'd like to go?
Oh, absolutely not. If I had a choice I would die of old age, more than a 100 years old, lying in bed next to my wife.

To prepare for that, do you leave notes for your family, just in case? Do you have a will?
No, I wrote a whole book! [It's called "Balance: A Story of Faith, Family and Life on the Line."]

Of course, I absolutely do [have a will]. I don't leave notes, but when leave the house to go practice, like I will in about 45 minutes, I give my wife and kids a hug and a kiss and tell them I'll see them later. But we don't know if I'll come back. Because we don't know if it will be a lightening strike that hits me or a car.

In the same way, I'll prepare for walking across the Grand Canyon. I'll give my wife and kids a hug and a kiss and say I'll see you in 45 minutes. We all live life on the edge. We just don't realize it and don't want to admit it. But the truth is we all stare death in the face daily.

And they'll all be there?
Absolutely. They'll be right there on the other side waiting for me.

Good motivation.
Life itself is good motivation, too.

Do you have life insurance and health insurance, and do they cover this?
I do, yes. Life insurance is nearly impossible for an event like this, but I do have it in general. And then we have extra policies that cover events like this that have to be brought out and purchased just for these events.

What does scare you?
Not much. Not much. I think it's just the way I was made, it's my genetic makeup. It takes quite a bit to intimidate me, for sure. As my mind races to think what would scare me: An elephant would scare me, if it was coming after me. Because there's nothing you can do about that.

Would you let your kids do what you do?
They all walk on the wire, 15, 12 and 10. They're all very good on the wire. I have never in my life said, 'Guys, get on the wire and practice.' I don't allow them – matter of fact they beg me – to go up higher than two feet but I won't allow them to until they prove that they have trained hard enough and that they want to take it to the next level as a career. And at this point none of them do. They all do it for fun. They want to go higher, but just for fun. They want to go to college and their college tuition is set aside for them and prepared so that when they decide to do so they have my blessing. Just like any parent I want my kids to be happy with their decision whatever they decide to do with their career.

I say all the time I'm extremely blessed to be in the shoes I'm in because I wake up every morning and I've never worked a day in my life. I do what I love and hope they do the same.

What kind of shoes do you wear for this, by the way?

The shoes that I wear are the only thing that are special. My mom makes them. They're basically an Indian moccasin with a cowhide upper and an elk skin bottom. Their very thin so that I can feel the wire through them. They protect my feet from the wire, they protect my feet from the heat. They're also designed so that if that cable starts to get wet from the rain or anything else, they become sticky rather than slippery.

Sorry to ask this, but when you're on the line, what about the bathroom issue?
My entire life my parents traveled all over the country by vehicle. We would drive for six or eight hours without stopping, because you had to get to the next town to set up and perform. I learned to control my bladder and my bowel system very well and that has come in very handy because I have never even had an inkling like, 'I need to go to the bathroom,' all of the sudden. Ever, in all the walks I've done all over the world.

And there's really nothing at all to catch you?
There's nothing. You're welcome to join me. The real deal, man. Life or death. I either make it or I don't.

In 2011, Nik and his mother, Delilah, recreated the 1978 stunt that claimed Karl Wallenda's life. Watch the video:

"Skywire Live With Nik Wallenda" airs Sunday on Discovery at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.