THE BIG STORY
With numerous world records under his belt, slackliner Andy Lewis now has his sights set on the Burj Khalifa.
About halfway through our interview, Andy ‘Sketchy’ Lewis, the semi-celebrity slackline walker, declares that people either love him or hate him. But that’s not really true. Take me, for example. I find him mildly irritating.
It’s when the 29-year-old – feted for completing some of the highest and longest line walks ever attempted – is talking about the death of a friend that does it.
The kid in question was 21 and killed in an accident while base jumping, another extreme activity in which participants leap from a cliff and parachute down. As Andy recalls his devastation at the tragedy – ‘just one split second and he’s gone’ – he finds it appropriate to take a rather unnecessary diversion to fit in a joke about the name of the landmark where it happened, G-Spot in Moab, Utah. Then he looks at me and says, ‘And I can’t describe how Daniel’s death made me feel.’
Sketchy Andy is full of stuff like this. He says one thing while his actions indicate another. He’s a motormouth and his words take him down cul-de-sacs of contradictions.
For a good portion of our 90 minutes together, he rallies against consumerism and materialism. ‘Literally billions of people are brainwashed into following a regular lifestyle,’ he says. ‘And all so they can
be sold new cars and bigger houses and whatever other expensive things they don’t need.’
A fair point, perhaps. Except he’s in Dubai as an ambassador of the vast Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. He’s the face of its new subsidiary Honor (typical mobile, Dh1,400). He is not only on the corporate payroll, but also wearing the brand T-shirt. And he doesn’t appear to be aware of the irony.
Later on, he’ll declare: ‘The best compliment anyone has ever paid me is that I’mnot like anyone else they’ve ever met.’
That’s not quite true either. To be honest, he reminds me of prettymuch every stereotype Western gap-year student I’ve ever met. But all that said, there’s no doubt Sketchy has racked up some seriously impressive achievements.
Widely regarded as the world’s greatest-ever slackliner, his art is in his ability to walk, dance, flip, pivot and pirouette on a stretch of tensioned webbing. If you imagine a kind of fast, furious and footloose version of tightrope walking, you’re close to what he does.
Among his CV highlights are winning world championship titles for tricklining – where participants perform stunts on the line – every year from2008-2011; executing the highest slackline walk (4,000ft up between two hot-air balloons); and performing to a global audience of billions when Madonna hand-picked him to appear on stage during her 2012 Super Bowl half-time show.
The last one – not to be underplayed, it seems – is described on Andy’s Wikipedia page thus: ‘He performed on a trickline while Madonna sang behind him.’
Today, he travels the globe performing and giving inspiration talks. His YouTube videos regularly receive more than a million views, and he is currently plotting his most spectacular walk in Dubai.
But there is something else Andy is renowned for. It’s called free soloing. Over the past decade, he has walked across more than 100 highlines without a safety net, parachute or any other form of protection. Such walks have included a 3,000ft high, 55ft long mosey between two peaks at Yosemite National Park in the US. The maths is very simple: if he had lost his balance and fell, he would have been dead. Why bother, I ask? ‘Because you can,’ he says. ‘If you can do this line in a parachute a hundred times, and you never make a mistake, why do you need the parachute? What’s the reason you clip
in? Every human is built to make excuses. There are a million reasons not to do anything but people have a very hard time finding a single reason to do something. And sometimes you don’t need a reason. You just do it because you can.’ How does it feel? ‘Like you are absolutely in the moment. You can’t worry or think about anything else. It takes everything – all your skill, energy and control – to be there. You’re risking your life. You’re looking fear in the face, and that’s very satisfying. Nothing goes through your mind. Stress melts away because you’re focused on something much more distracting: the need to live. It’s the most incredible experience. It’s addictive because you’re truly embracing the here and now, and a lot of people forget to ever do that in their life – they forget to live.’
This is part of Sketchy’s thing. He believes the majority of us never embrace the moment and, therefore, rarely, if ever, experience euphoria or joy or the wonder of life. We do not know, he says, the sheer visceral thrill of existence which, presumably, can only come by spending three days rigging up some webbing and 10minutes pottering across it.
‘I feel likemost people wake up and think, “Oh [expletive], this isn’t what I want from life”,’ he says. ‘I think most people think they’re missing out. Well, not me.
‘If I want a lobster, I’ll order lobster. If I want to go out and sing and dance and be myself, I do that. Because knowing that the next day youmight be dead gives you that freedom. It’s like, if you have cancer and you have three weeks to live, would you live any differently? Most people would say, “Absolutely, I would quit my job, I would go out and jet-ski, do things I’ve never done, kite-surf, whatever. Sing my heart out.” And I don’t understandwhy they don’t do that anyway. Why do you need a reason to live truly without death being an inevitability in the next threeweeks? You should accept the moment as the only true thing we have. There is no promise of a future. A comet could hit earth tomorrow.’
Andy’s own journey into the here and now began 11 years ago when he was still a student. An enthusiast of extreme sports, he started practising slacklining in a park near his house after a friend introduced him to it. It turned from a hobby into a passion into a whole way of life. He continued his studies, majoring in recreational and businessmarketing, but slacklining consumed his waking hours. In 2006, he became the first person known to have completed a backflip on a webbing. He’s been advancing the sport ever since, pushing boundaries and dreaming up new challenges and stunts.
‘Iwas choosing not to make money or be a part of society,’ he says. ‘I chose to do crazy things because I was driven by something – some inner spirit. My parents asked me not to do it but the turning point for them was when they started seeing how happy the people aroundme were, how much I was inspiring others.’
It’s not always been easy. For starters, the sheer dedication required is mind-boggling. For 30 seconds on stage with Madonna, for instance, he spent sixmonths perfecting his moves. Also, it’s all rather frowned upon by authorities. In many American parks, slacklining is illegal, and if you wanted to walk between two buildings, few property owners are willing to give permission.
‘So, you do it illegally,’ says Andy, who was born in California. ‘It’s the only way. The funny thing is most people know me from my videos and the stuff that I’ve captured and put out to theworld but they don’t know about the stuff that I can’t show them; the stuff I want to show them but I can’t even mention because I’d be in jail.’
Does he worry that by putting his dangerous stunts online, he might encourage youngsters to attempt similar feats, and they might end up seriously hurting themselves?
‘It’s inevitable that it will happen, and has happened,’ he says. ‘It’s a hard thing to deal with. When I put a video out showing what’s possible and someone then tries to do it and dies, I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible. It’s happened. You break down and cry and it can keep you up at night. But then you get an email from someone who says, “I just quit my job and for the last year have travelled theworld and it changed my life and I want to thank you forever” – it kind of balances out.’
I don’t bother saying it doesn’t sound very balanced to me. Instead I ask about Dubai. He is in plans, he says, with the relevant people about slacklining at the top of the Burj Khalifa.
‘It’s possible,’ he says. ‘You build a gigantic steel star on the ground then weld it to the top so it sticks out 100ft on either side. You rig the slacklines up there and then you’re set to slackline at the very highest urban point in the world. It’s absolutely doable. And if any place could make it happen, it’s Dubai. Practically speaking, is a very simple idea. It’s a project that would cost no more than $250,000 [ Dh918,137]. Will it happen? I think so. When I want something to happen, it usually does.’
With that he has to go. The message is watch this space. Because love him or hate him, there’s no doubt Sketchy Andy is high(line)ly ambitious.
Stress melts away because you’re FOCUSED on something much more DISTRACTING– the need to LIVE. It’s ADDICTIVE because you are embracing the HERE AND NOW and a lot of people forget to do that
One of Andy Lewis’s greatest stunts was slacklining between two hot-air balloons 4,000ft up – the highest slackline walk ever
When Madonna picked Andy to perform with her in 2012, he practised his moves for six months for a 30-second performance
In July last year, Andy walked on webbing tied between two buildings in Bangkok, creating a world record in free solo slacklining