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Rick Wallenda's daring walk mesmerizes crowd at St. Petersburg's Sundial

Rick Wallenda, a member of the famous tightrope-walking Flying Wallendas, walks a high wire above the Sundial courtyard in downtown St. Petersburg. Saturday’s event was a benefit for Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County.
Published Feb. 12, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Rick Wallenda wasn't worried Saturday as he approached the half-inch cable spanning the Sundial courtyard, from Ruth's Chris Steak House to Sea Salt.

He's walked the tightrope so many times he can't even count, 49 years professionally and just-for-fun years before that.

Once he's secured the rigging, picked his rope holders and attended to other details, "I trust my skill and I trust in the Lord, Jesus Christ," said Wallenda, 61.

Not even the knowledge that his family members fell nearly 40 feet just days earlier while attempting an eight-person pyramid on the high wire deterred him. His sister faces surgeries to repair a broken pelvis and cracked hip, he said, and a cousin remains in serious condition from which Wallenda hoped she would recover.

"They wouldn't want me to stop," he said. "We're all rooting for each other."

Wallenda, an 2001 Eckerd College graduate, performed his act — including a gasp-inducing headstand in the middle — to support Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County. The Edwards Group, which owns the Sundial shopping area, also sponsors Habitat's annual gala fundraiser and wanted to hold a special activity to promote the circus-themed event.

Organizer Laura Fage said she joked with owner Bill Edwards, " 'Do you want me to get the Wallendas to walk across the Sundial?' He said, 'That would be great.' "

They reached a deal, and the show went on after months of planning and engineering, to make sure the building could withstand the pressure of the wire.

Wallenda's 81-year-old mother, Carla, came to watch. She skipped the Sarasota pyramid run by her grandson, Nik, saying she knew they were going to fall.

Rick, who was trained by Carla's father, Karl, "is perfectly safe," she said. "He's good at it. The other one, I was nervous."

Some members of Saturday's crowd, which flowed out of the Sundial courtyard into nearby streets and parking garages, admitted to their own anxiety as they peered upward to watch the man in red, white and blue skywalk.

"I'm nervous because he might fall off," said Travis Ricottilli, 7, whose dad, Dan, brought him to get a feel of the circus knowing the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is closing in May.

Rick Wallenda emerged just before 5 p.m., as an announcer intoned that "the danger is real." He tested the wire one last time, then began.

On his way, he paused and shouted, "Something is slipping."

Veronica Sarkis, 8, held her breath and twisted her fingers, telling her friend Kira Gianfilippo, 7, that she didn't like it. But she didn't stop staring.

Five minutes later, when Wallenda arrived safely on the other side of the wire to whoops and applause, Veronica cheered, too.

"It's really cool because I've never seen this before," she said. "And I'm really happy he did not fall."

Anne Bleicher, 83, who attended with her sisters Joanne Theriault and Mary Fallon, was equally enthralled.

"All the decades I've lived, I've never seen anything like it, so it was fantastic," said Bleicher. "But I would not attempt it."

Such reactions are what keep Wallenda on the wire.

"There are certain times when I want everyone to keep quiet," he said. "But I want to know we've made them happy. We are going to make America gasp again."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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