THE BIG STORY

With nu­mer­ous world records un­der his belt, slack­liner Andy Lewis now has his sights set on the Burj Khal­ifa.

Friday - - Contents -

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

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