Insights into Nik Wallenda’s high-wire walk over Chicago
On Sunday, Nov. 2, daredevil Nik Wallenda completed an amazing two-part tightrope walk 50 stories above the Chicago River that broke not one, but two Guinness World Records. Without a safety net or harness, Wallenda first walked from the Marina City’s west tower to the Leo Burnett Building — a distance of more than two city blocks that rose to a 15-degree angle, the steepest angle Wallenda has ever attempted. For the second part of the walk, spanning Marina City’s west and east towers, Wallenda was blindfolded.
Brian Cole, MD, MBA, a sports medicine surgeon at Rush University Medical Center, provided expert medical commentary during the Discovery Channel’s broadcast of the event, which was seen by more than 22,000,000 people (roughly 64,000 were on hand to watch live). After Wallenda completed his death-defying stunt, we asked Cole to comment. Here’s what he had to say.
Q: What insights did you offer during the telecast?
Cole: Mostly, I talked about the difference between walking on an incline and walking on a level wire, and the recovery issues Nik faced. He had only a short period of time to transition from one to the other, and that presented some unique challenges.
Muscle fatigue was one issue he had to contend with. To walk at an incline, he had to use dozens of muscles in his legs and the larger muscles of his core. Plus, he was holding a 45-pound pole with his arms bent for a prolonged period of time. We also discussed the need for recovery — physically and mentally — before starting the second part of the walk, where he was blindfolded.
Q: What additional challenges did the blindfold create?
Cole: To maintain balance and stay on the wire, there has to be integration between three systems
- The vestibular system (the inner ear), which helps him balance and stay upright
- Proprioception, receptors that help us perceive where our joints and limbs are in relation to each other, and controls how we move in response to where we are in space. For example, it’s this system that allows us to walk without looking at our feet but not lose our balance and fall.
- Vision, which helps to integrate the nervous system, as it provides feedback to improve the actions of our inner ear and our proprioceptive system.
Being blindfolded — taking vision out of the equation — is like removing one leg from a three-legged stool: It changes your ability to balance and for Nik was a game-changer.
I think from a technical and difficulty standpoint, the blindfold was more challenging than the incline. Nik was definitely more nervous about that part of the feat.
Q: What role does the pole play for a tightrope walker?
Cole: Most people think the pole has something to do with lowering the person’s center of gravity. But actually, the pole is responsible for changing something called “moment of inertia,” which is a basic physics principle that relates to balance.
If you think of a figure skater doing a spin, they start with their arms extended and spin relatively slowly, but they are more stable and less likely to fall. When they pull their arms in close to the body, they spin very quickly but fall more easily.
The pole spreads the person’s mass over a wider distance, which improves stability and lowers the risk of a fall. As the pole spreads Nik’s mass away from his body, it increases his moment of inertia, much like the figure skater holding out his arms.
Q: How did Wallenda prepare for the unique challenges of this stunt?
Cole: He practiced both on an incline and blindfolded. He also had people there, while he was practicing, trying to create unpredictable movements in the wire so he could improve his body positioning.
I also commented during the telecast that Nik’s “playing field” is very different from most athletes. The wire is unlike a court or turf field. His opponent is particularly unpredictable: the unanticipated gusts of wind, weather and movement in the wire were all aspects of this unique challenge that Nik had to prepare for.
Q: What is the biggest difference between “extreme athletes” like Nik Wallenda and other high-level athletes?
Cole: Extreme athletes tend to score very low on the risk aversion scale — they have very little aversion to any risk — but they also exhibit very self-directed behavior.
That means they are intelligent, calculated, responsible and methodical. They are not stupid. They are not careless. But their levels of fear, all things being equal, are less than any normal person would have given the same level of risk.
There are certain scoring systems used to assess this type of personality. The extreme athlete has an entirely different personality profile than normal athletes have. The risk of death is not common to most sports — even sports we tend to consider dangerous, like football or rugby — but it is remains a unique aspect of those who indulge in extreme sports.
Q: What was it like for you to be part of the spectacle?
Cole: This was my first time being involved with this type of activity, and I learned a lot about the nature of the people who do this kind of thing: people who are seen as entertainers but are athletes in their own right.
It was also amazing to see how this group of people came together to pull off a $25,000,000 production that was perfectly choreographed — except, of course, for the actual walk.
People were riveted as Nik ascended the incline and then successfully concluded his blindfolded walk. It caused shivers for those of us on the rooftop as he finished his walk on edge of Marina tower. This was truly an experience that I will never forget.