Most toddlers delight their parents by walking from one end of the room to the other without wiping out.
Two-year-old Nik Wallenda dazzled his mom, Delilah, when he walked across the living room on a wire.
It’s par for the course when you grow up in what is arguably the world’s most famous circus family: the Great Wallendas, a high-flying clan whose seven-generation act dates back to late-1700s Austria-Hungary. The current troupe is set to headline the return of the Big Apple Circus at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center starting Oct. 27, nearly a year after the circus declared bankruptcy.
On the first day of rehearsal, under the big top at New Jersey’s Sussex County Fairgrounds, now-38-year-old Nik is a cool customer, spider-monkeying up a 40-foot beam while chewing gum.
The casual observer would never know how much is at stake.
The circus world has weathered several serious blows of late, most notably the May 2016 shuttering of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, after 146 years of operation. When Big Apple Circus filed for bankruptcy that November, many worried that the storied circus tradition wouldn’t survive another generation (it was rescued at the last-minute at a bankruptcy auction).
As for the Wallendas themselves, the clan has endured no shortage of harrowing and often tragic setbacks.
The troupe made national headlines in February when five members were involved in a devastating accident while rehearsing an eight-person high-wire pyramid in Sarasota, Fla. As is their unofficial tradition, they were working without a safety net, which provides “a false sense of security,” Nik has said in previous interviews.
As the Wallendas practiced their formation 35 feet aboveground, with Nik’s aunt Rietta at the top, one member became unbalanced, causing the entire pyramid to topple. Four performers suffered critical injuries, with Nik’s sister, Lijana, 40, experiencing the worst: She broke every bone in her face and had to be placed in a medically induced coma as surgeons implanted plates and screws. Only Nik and a cousin, Blake, were unhurt — they stopped their fall by clinging onto the cable.
“We’re all human and we have different thresholds,” Nik tells The Post. “Our family, more than others, we overcome challenges and just keep going.”
The accident was just one in a series that has affected the family over the years.
At age 73, Nik and Lijana’s great-grandfather Karl Wallenda died during a notorious 1978 cable wire walk between two 10-story hotel towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His death, later attributed to high winds and improperly secured guide cables, was televised.
The grisly incident was preceded by the 1962 deaths of Nik and Lijana’s uncles, Dieter Schepp and Richard Faughnan, in a seven-man pyramid accident at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum.
Karl was also predeceased by his sister-in-law, Rietta, who died in 1963 after falling 45 feet during a performance in Omaha, Nebraska.
Lijana recalls hearing about her family’s tragic history while growing up, but says she was unfazed.
“I’ve heard it talked about since I was a baby. It wasn’t scary. It was almost like a legend or fairy tale — it didn’t seem real,” she says.“Falling isn’t in our vocabulary.”
Though the Las Vegas-based Lijana will be sitting out the Big Apple engagement to continue her recovery — doctors will break and reset her jaw next year — she began rehearsing again a few weeks ago with a three-person high-wire pyramid.
“It’s home to me,” she says. “Just because you get into a car accident doesn’t mean you never drive again.”
‘Our family, more than others, we overcome challenges and just keep going.’
Indeed, fear doesn’t grow on this family tree.
For proof, look no further than Nik’s bittersweet 2011 feat. Along with his mother, Delilah, he completed the same 100-foot-high wire crossing in Puerto Rico that killed Karl in 1978.
“My great-grandfather lost his life, and I re-created that,” says Nik. “We’ve had our fair share of tragedy. But life is all about perspective: How can I be an inspiration to someone if I allow that stuff to overtake me? No matter what tragedies occur in life, you go on.
“Situations happen in life for a reason,” he says. “We can turn that into motivation.”
Lijana agrees. “I’ve been on the wire in the past where you step wrong and your heart drops, but you can’t let it get to you,” she says.
Nik, having broken 10 world records with his various stunts, says family competition helps fuel the troupe, too.
His wife, Erendira Wallenda, made history in June when she dangled by her teeth from a helicopter hovering 300 feet over Niagara Falls. The feat, an aerial maneuver known as an iron jaw, shattered her husband’s iron jaw record by 50 feet. What’s more, she pulled it off on the five-year anniversary of Nik’s 2012 high-wire crossing over Niagra Falls — which was a first for mankind.
“Motivating and inspiring and being that positive person is what this generation needs so badly,” Nik says of his personal drive. “The reason I broke 10 world records is to hopefully interest that new generation to come to see what’s under the big top. They don’t know what they’re going to see when they get there, and 95 percent are blown away.”
It’s that optimism and sheer resilience that set the Fabulous Wallendas apart.
At practice, Nik fist-bumps his teammates and throws up a peace sign before joining the group in a seven-person pyramid.
“I ask myself, ‘If there’s another accident, would I keep going?’” he says afterward. “I hope I’m not in that situation.”
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