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The Great Wallendas

Story and editing by Lynn Rosen; Photos and videos by Steve Giordano   June 1, 2009


The Flying Wallendas. Who doesn’t recognize that name? This famous circus family is known worldwide for its high-wire and daredevil stunts and for performing death-defying acts without a safety net.

When the patriarch, Karl Wallenda, first formed his troupe in Germany in 1922, they were known as The Great Wallendas. John Ringling saw the Wallendas perform in Cuba and signed them with his circus in America.

Their first show with the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1928 at Madison Square Garden was performed without a net. But this was not a planned act of derring-do—Their net had been lost in transit from Europe. The audience, unaware of this mishap, and understandably inspired by this never-before-seen high-wire phenomenon, gave a standing ovation. Ever since that first performance and wherever local regulations allow, the Wallendas have performed without a net.

Through the following years, the Wallenda family experienced lots of triumphs but also accidents, both spectacular and tragic. When an awe-struck reporter wrote of an Akron, Ohio, accident where everyone fell but no one was hurt, he called them "The Flying Wallendas" and the name stuck.

Briana Phelps on the high wire
High-wire training in Sarasota, Florida. Rick Wallenda, right, and brother-and-sister Nathan and Briana Phelps. Briana is ten and Nathan is sixteen.
Karl Wallenda  

During a high-wire skywalk in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1978, Karl Wallenda, 73 and recently recovering from a broken neck, fell to his death. His grandson, Rick Wallenda, bravely and gracefully stepped into his shoes and completed that walk a year later.

Karl Wallenda
Karl Wallenda, patriarch of "The Great Wallendas," performs high above Phillies Veterans Stadium in 1972.
  In 2008, Rick Wallenda set a Guinness Book of World Records when he broke his grandfather’s record on a skywalk at King’s Island, Ohio. He was handed the reins of the company by his mother, Carla, and now The Great Wallenda name continues. Click here for TV news story of Rick Wallenda's King's Island skywalk, the walk that broke his grandfather's record.    Rick Wallenda Rick Wallenda breaks grandfather's record in Detroit  

Have you ever wondered who trains these fabulous, flying, great Wallendas? Most of the training usually takes place inside the family circle. But every once in a while a phenomenal talent like 10-year-old Briana Phelps appears from outside that circle.

On a balmy April afternoon in Sarasota, Florida, we hired a car to take us from our downtown hotel to meet a very special circus family and the remarkable young high-wire performer-in-training.

The driver, who grew up in Sarasota, never knew that this quiet trailer park at the edge of the city existed. It's mainly populated by circus people, both active and retired.

  Karl Wallenda compound  
The Wallenda family compound in Sarasota, Florida
  Rick Wallenda training yard  
  Known to insiders as “circus city” since the days when Ringling Brothers Circus was wintered here, Sarasota is where many circus people have long made their homes when they’re not on tour. We visited the Wallenda compound for an after-school practice session as Rick Wallenda continued his training of Briana.  
  Rick Wallenda training yard  
  Rick Wallenda training yard  
  Briana Phelps on Rick Wallenda's shoulders   Briana Phelps performs on a rope   Briana Phelps on lyre  
Briana's after-school practice entails work on the high wire, web (silk rope), lyre and swaypole.
 Lynn Rosen interviews Briana Phelps
  Lynn Rosen interviews Briana Phelps

Lynn Rosen: How did you get started doing this?

Briana Phelps: Rick Wallenda, my circus trainer - my mom and I have known him since I was 4. I go to school with his daughter. He went to Cincinnati to beat his grandfather’s record for skywalk and we went as crew. On the way home I asked if he would teach me and after he checked with my mom, he said sure. And we just started practicing.

LR: How long ago?

BP: 8 months ago.

LR: You must like it.

BP: I LOVE it. I don’t like it. I LOVE IT!

LR: Tell me what you love about it.

BP: I love the attention and I feel proud when I do it. I feel I’ve made an accomplishment every day.

  Briana Phelps   Briana Phelps   Briana Phelps   Briana Phelps   Briana Phelps      

LR: What are you going to do for us today?

BP: High wire, web, lyre and sway pole.

LR: And you’ve learned all that in 8 months.


LR: What’s been the most difficult thing?

BP: Mmmmmm …. I guessssss …..There’s not really the hardest thing for me. My mom says I’m really brave. And she says that I was meant for this or something like that. And she said – and it’s true – (giggle) – I have been wanting to ride the biggest roller coasters ever since I was three or four.

LR: So you love excitement.

BP: I love high…and excitement…and the tension…and stuff like that.

LR: So this is perfect.

BP: Yup. I love doing it. And I love the feeling of moving from place to place. I’m not the kind of person who likes to stay in one place all the time.

LR: How heavy is the pole?

BP: There are different weights. My pole is twenty pounds. Rick’s pole is 38 pounds.

LR: You have to be strong to hold on to that.

BP: You have to be strong to do all of it.

LR: What’s the most important? Legs?

(Her watchful coach and mentor intervenes here with his wise experience.)

Rick Wallenda: Upper body strength is probably more important. You’ve got to hold on. You’re up in the air; the most important thing is you gotta hold on. You can’t hold on, I’m not letting you up there.

LR: Briana, what would you like your fans to know about what you do?

BP: That it’s really, really fun! And I love doing it.

LR: Do you plan to do this for your life?

BP: Not all my life, but quite a bit of years.

  Yolanda Phelps  
Yolanda Phelps, Briana & Nathan's mom, keeps a close eye on this practice session. She works as an industrial safety officer for the state of Florida, yet has full confidence in her daughter and son's safety practices and attitudes.
  Briana Phelps   Briana Phelps   Briana Phelps   Briana Phelps  

And quite a “bit of years” that may turn out to be. If there was any doubt about the longevity of a highwire performer, just watch out for Rick Wallenda’s mom, Carla. At 73, she still performs amazing feats on the highwire and swaypole and is looking forward to a Michigan tour coming up this summer. Talk about following in the footsteps of the great!

  Click here for photos of Carla Wallenda atop the 110-foot swaypole.  

Rick Wallenda has also trained both of Briana’s older brothers, Egan and Nate, who have performed the pyramid and other high wire acts with their younger sister and the Wallenda troupe. Although they have decided to focus their careers in other directions, they still practice and train with their sister. Nate was on the wire the day we visited.


Rick Wallenda: Briana’s mom and I met six and a half years ago. Bri and my youngest daughter became best buddies. Her brothers and my son became good friends, too. We maintained the friendship. When I did a record-breaking skywalk at King’s Island, Ohio last year (July 4, 2008), she and her mother were part of my team. When we were there, she was just so impressive because the media surrounded me. She pushed right to the front and started answering questions. This is a girl who’s never been around the circus or the media before. She’s got the personality for it. When I sat down to sign autographs for people, she was organizing everything - passing pictures to me “this one’s for this person…” She was just incredible. On the trip home she said to me, “Would you train me for the high wire?” I said, “Well, you’ve got to talk to your mom about that.” Her mom wholeheartedly approved and within two months she was showing incredible talent and already performing. She was nine.

LR: There has been criticism about Briana performing. Why is that?

RW: The high wire can be dangerous if you’re not trained right. People don’t like the idea of a ten-year-old girl performing something that could be dangerous but they don’t realize how many hours and hours we spend practicing with her and how incredible she is. Now once they have seen her, the criticism has fallen by the wayside.

LR: What’s your day like?

  Briana Phelps warms up  
Briana Phelps warms up

RW: We practice in the afternoons on school days because Briana doesn’t get out of school until 4 o’clock. So we usually practice 4:30 to 6 now that it’s light longer. It’s warmer now too. In the winter months, sometimes we’re out there practicing in 60-degree weather. It’s really impossible to practice for very long. You can’t warm up properly and so there’s the possibility of pulling a muscle. We limit practice in cold weather.

  Briana Phelps warms up  

LR: Otherwise, do you practice every day?

RW: No, we leave Mondays off because Mondays are heavy-duty homework days. So we leave one day that’s just for homework. We practice on Saturdays and Sundays, so her day off is Monday. But then she doesn’t really get a day off ‘cause she has homework! (sweet laugh)

LR: What’s your upcoming touring schedule?

RW: We just returned from Alaska – that was the beginning of our tour. Breezy’s mom, Yolanda, always, always travels with us of course. She’s on the payroll as our webmistress and handles all the technical details. We’re negotiating now for several fairs in the southeast and we’re opening at Playland in Rye, New York, just outside of New York City, June 23 through Labor Day. Hopefully Brianna will get more exposure to major media on our tour. We’d like to get her on Letterman if we could. I had a dream that I bumped into him at an airport and said “Hey, Mr. Letterman. How about having Brianna on your show?” And he said “Yeah. I’d like that!”

LR: Was that prophetic?

RW: I hope so.

LR: What would you like your fans to know when they think of the Wallendas, because you’re so much a part of the American psyche.

RW: I think the very thing that my grandfather wanted people to know is that we don’t give up as a family. I went back to the place where my grandfather was killed and I accomplished that walk.

LR: How do you live with this family legacy?

RW: I’m proud of our legacy. And I’m proud to carry it on. The legacy is not a burden. It’s not cumbersome to us. It’s something that actually boosts our self-concept, our self-esteem. We feel good about doing the act. And when we’re gone, somebody will come behind us and continue on.

  Rick Wallenda and troupe in Alaska  
The World Famous Wallendas during their 2009 Alaska tour. Front, Briana Phelps
Back, L to R, Rick Wallenda, Lyric Wallenda (Rick's niece), Rietta Wallenda (Rick's sister and Lyric's mother), Luis Obando (long-time family friend and colleague)
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