The Making of a Circus Girl
The Wallenda winter quarters is located in Sarasota, Florida, and supports a community of individuals; some of which share a common love and bond in the circus. Karl and Helen Wallenda established this winter quarters more than 60 years ago that still serves as a training ground, repair shop, and parking lot for trucks and trailers used in ongoing performances. The World Famous Wallendas high-wire troupe recruits individuals then trains them on this ground. People come from all walks of life for the opportunity to train with the Wallendas. Some of the Circus Girls that trained here include my mother, Carla, sisters, Rietta and Valerie, my former spouse, daughters, nieces, and now we add one very special Circus Girl to this list of elite ladies that graced the air high above circus rings around the world—Bri.
I met Bri when she was just four years old. She arrived with her mother Yolanda and two brothers, not as students but as guests in one of our rental units on the property. Not long after their arrival her family and ours formed a very close relationship. My mother first saw the potential and suggested I train all the children for a big troupe. My children and Yolanda’s children played together and eventually we all landed on the wire during training time.
I first trained the oldest of the kids, Egan, as a bottom person for our traditional pyramids, with my daughter, Olivia, mounting the top position. Our practice sessions at that time were not demanding and focused on sport rather than readiness for touring. The students excelled and it appeared we were on the path to eventually booking an act, although I never made serious effort.
Several years later I invited Yoli and Bri on a road trip. The event was a massive Skywalk at Kings Island Theme Park near Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 4, 2008. The stunt followed Robbie Knievel at the same location breaking his father’s record set there in 1974. My stunt boasted the breaking of my grandfather’s “Skywalk” record of 1,800 feet that was previously set there in 1974 as well. I proposed to walk 2,000 feet and invited Yoli and Bri to be part of my ground support team. Without any preconceived expectations for 9 year-old Bri and her momYoli, they both astonished me with their remarkable ability to adapt from ordinary town girls to fully professional Circus Girls; anticipating and meeting needs beyond my scope. It astounded me even more when Bri took charge of the media and autograph session following the walk. She organized everyone into an orderly procession for their opportunity to get close to the daredevil after the media had their opportunity. Bri at age 9 knew intuitively what the situation demanded while her mom (thinking ahead) beheld the situation through her camera lens—something that never occurred to me. This “duo” impressed me so much that I wanted to make them a permanent part of my troupe but hesitated to push that point. With daredevil stunts, the individual must feel the desire. This “Skywalk” certainly gave them both a taste of the Wallenda legacy.
With the spectacular event over and our entire team on the road home to Florida to prepare for our next event, Yoli informed me that Bri wanted to ask a question.
“Rick, will you teach me to walk the highwire?”
If the Skywalk seeded the desire in this girl, it germinated faster than expected. An astonishing question from a girl of 9 but she was not yet a Circus Girl. She watched as I trained her brother and my children but she was still a town girl. With no expectations I agreed to practice with her. The date was July 5th, 2008, and as we traveled on I-75 south toward Florida, we discussed what training involved; the sacrifices, the pain, the demands. I trained both of her brothers in prior years as she watched. Bri certainly seemed agile enough, still I had no serious expectations for a 9 year old girl as a daredevil. Practice began in earnest on July 7th, 2008.
I expected that in a few years she might accomplish enough to top our famed “Pyramid” for a show of some kind. She surprised everyone. Within a few days she walked the wire and a few days later, July 18th, with her older brother, Egan, as the “Front Man” in the “Pyramid”, we assembled on the platform. Bri mounted the bar to form the second tier of a pyramid and we crossed the wire in this configuration. She was 9 years old.
“What can I learn now?” she asked with anticipation. Like a hungry animal in my hands I wanted to feed her eagerness. The chair for the Pyramid was designed for an adult, but in earlier years I designed a smaller chair for my own daughter, Olivia. The next day Bri sat on the chair on our practice contraption. In a few days she graduated to the larger chair, then to the wire, and finally she was ready for the chair in the Pyramid. With absolutely no hesitation she mounted the chair on the Pyramid and we accomplished the trick, carrying her from one pedestal to the opposite pedestal; I knew we were ready for a show.
The Chair Pyramid is the signature trick for our family high-wire troupe. Bri accomplished this feat for practice in less than a month. The rest of the Wallenda family traveled with their own acts leaving me as the sole provider for this developing daredevil. My amazement flourished with each day we trained. She absorbed all I presented and asked for more. A trainer is only as good as the student and Bri made me look like a great trainer. We complimented her skill with confidence by elevating the wire almost on a weekly basis. By mid-August I wanted to book the act and sought the opportunity.
The first request came soon after we placed Bri on a wire elevated 10 feet above ground. The request for our appearance was for August 29th – 30th for a promotional stunt at an auto dealership. Bri’s 10th birthday approached (August 25th) and we staged a dress rehearsal inviting friends and family for a birthday party and show. At twenty feet in the air Bri accomplished her first show less than two months after starting. She was now ready for the “real thing”. The show for the auto dealer went spectacularly, as I introduced our newest daredevil to spectators, with her older brother, Egan, we accomplished a world record—the youngest person in history to top the Pyramid. The next show was scheduled for November 15th – 16th and Bri wanted to stand on the chair atop the Pyramid. In the previous show she merely rode across in the Pyramid configuration. For this show she wanted to stand. We readied her other brother, Nathan, for this show and accomplished another world record as the youngest person to stand on the chair. More world records followed as this young daredevil, just 10 years of age, made history with each show by exceeding the limits of tradition.
Traditionally, we wait to allow children in the act, but in this case, Bri astonished me with her abilities. It seemed that she naturally knew what to do and how to do it. At 10 years of age, Bri accomplished an amazing feat that still marks a world-record by standing on the chair in the pyramid. I set my sights on the next step for this amazing child daredevil.
When we returned to our training quarters, I knew Bri wanted more. I erected the swaypole and began to look for an experienced bottom man for the Chair Pyramid on bicycles. My eyes turned to Colombian high-wire walker, Luis Obando, and we signed a contract to go to Alaska with The International All-Star Circus. Before leaving for Alaska, Bri mastered the Sway Pole routine at the practice level of about 30 feet. We also decided to practice the most famous of all feats—the “Seven-Person Pyramid”.
We sought this goal for Bri as another world-record and for this we turned to our Colombian friends again. Pedro Carillo summoned all the local high-wire walkers in the area and on December 20th, 2008, we assembled the Seven-Person Pyramid in a practice situation with Bri on the chair on top and she stood making another world record as the youngest in history to accomplish this feat. For my own personal satisfaction I asked our friends to attempt one more Pyramid, which they call the “Double-Double”. With two on the wire yoked with the bar, I mounted the bar with Bri behind me. In the center of the wire we stopped and Bri mounted my shoulders forming a vertical “Double” standing on a horizontal “Double”: All this less than six months after her first high-wire lesson. We then readied for our Alaskan tour.
In Alaska she accomplished the next world-record: “Chair Pyramid on Bikes” and Bri was just 10 years of age. We returned to training quarters for more practice and preparation for our next job at Playland Amusement Park just north of New York City. The contract called for both highwire and swaypole.
Bri celebrated her eleventh birthday at Playland after accomplishing another world-record on the swaypole. At fifty feet tall, but still not at the maximum height, Bri climbed the pole as the youngest in history to perform that feat. We felt it was time to contact Guinness.
The Guinness World Records never loomed as a goal in our family although my grandparents accomplished several unrecognized records. Not until the Kings Island record in 1974, did a record make the books. We felt Bri worked exceedingly hard for it so it compelled us to reward her with this significant prize. Guinness responded that they would witness the record for $500 but doubted they would award a child a record. This comment brought considerable disappointment because I felt the records were for accomplishments, not $500. Subsequent years they awarded records to other children for: “solo sailing round the world as a teen” (not yet completed), “solo climbing the tallest peak on Earth as a pre-teen”, and “solo hot air balloon flight at 9 years of age”. We resolved to continue setting unrecognized records. It is all well documented for some future possibility.
We knew Bri accomplished more than any other youngster in history, but still reached even higher. The swaypole could attain a commanding height of eighty feet with a dramatic “Slide-for-Life” finish. During the summer of 2010, we gave Bri a “raise”— eighty feet in the air. She made the act look easy and then closed her routine with the slide!
Bri continues to impress everyone. Some respond with adoration as in one location when it took nearly an hour for her to sign autographs for spectators. Others respond with jealous antagonism. I swell in pride at either response because it indicates that this girl is extremely special. At 13 years old she now attends school and we limit our shows to events not conflicting with her studies. As she grows from Circus Girl into womanhood, I expect even more world-records as she prepares to carry on the Wallenda legacy, exceeding traditions and limitations, standing far above all other young girls already. Go for it, Bri! ■