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Wright Words: Daredevil tightrope walker Nik Wallenda is not a hero

Published: Tuesday, June 25 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Aerialist Nik Wallenda near the end of his quarter mile walk over the Little Colorado River Gorge in northeastern Arizona on Sunday, June 23, 2013. The daredevil successfully traversed the tightrope strung 1,500 feet above the chasm near the Grand Canyon in just more than 22 minutes, pausing and crouching twice as winds whipped around him and the cable swayed.

Tiffany Brown, AP

On Sunday night, tightrope walker, world-record holder and self-described "King of the High Wire” Nik Wallenda strolled 1,500 feet above the ground on a two-inch wide wire across the Little Colorado River Gorge on the Navajo Nation near the Grand Canyon.

No net, no harness, no Plan B.

For this and his history of death-defying stunts, including a scenic journey last year over Niagara Falls, Wallenda might be called gutsy, dedicated, talented, driven and much more. But let’s not call him a hero.

Since his successful stunt — broadcast to millions online and around the world on Discovery Channel — Twitter has been ablaze with praise for the daredevil. User @theIII59 tweeted, “Congrats to our hometown (Sarasota, Fla.) Hero, Nik Wallenda.”

Search social media and you’ll find a digital mountain of similar sentiment.

@brockgill wrote, “Nik wallenda is my hero. Hoping he walks across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope now w(ith) no problems. Beautiful stunt!”

@cwhitten7 tweeted, “That was the greatest thing ive witnessed in my life. Nik Wallenda is my hero.”

@Grog77: “Arizona has a new hero, Nik Wallenda. The flying Wallenda tradition continues ... ”

@kurtTheInfidel invoked blessings of heaven. “Nik wallenda is my hero. Hoping God sees him across this wire.”

Indeed, much has been made of Wallenda’s deep faith. He prayed with Lakewood Church Pastor Joel Osteen before beginning his trek and called out to heaven often during his 22-minute, 1,400-foot journey. He should be admired for his faith, but do his beliefs make him a hero?

Wallenda, a married father of three, is a seventh-generation member of the Flying Wallendas. Through the years, the family has suffered the loss of five members during stunts, including Wallenda’s great-grandfather Karl Wallenda, who fell from a tightrope in 1978 as family and fans looked on. Another Wallenda, Mario, survived a fall but was paralyzed from the waist down. Does Wallenda’s bloodline make him a hero?

Among those cheering on the stunt were Wallenda’s wife and children. They prayed with him, watched nervously as he slowly walked and no doubt prayed again when he safely stepped onto the opposite cliff.

One assumes he explained to his family that, according to news reports, he hoped to save himself with his legs if he slipped and that rescuers could arrive in as few as 60 seconds. But one larger-than-expected gust, one aggressive bird and who knows?

Does being willing to die on global television with his children among the 13 million viewers make him a hero?

Some might argue that the Wallenda’s chosen profession is no different than other risky careers like racecar driving, firefighting or serving in the military. Naturally, accidents happen in every field. But each of those provides — and, in fact requires — significant safety precautions and redundancies so that all accidents are not necessarily fatal. In Wallenda’s case, and unlike last year’s walk across Niagara Falls with a safety harness, he specifically chose to skip the safety measures to add to the drama.

I’m not a doctor or first responder, but I suspect that falls from 1,500 feet are always fatal.

Months ago, I wrote about a remarkable FBI agent, Danny Knapp, and his inspiring family. On a rare day off in December of 2011, Knapp dove into dangerous waters on a beach in Puerto Rico to save a drowning teenager. He gave his life that day to a complete stranger. That’s a hero.

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