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A WALKER ON THE WILD SIDE

Sudbury, Ont., native Jay Cochrane has wowed crowds and the world with awesome funambulist exploits

SHANE PEACOCK August 25 2003
Profile

A WALKER ON THE WILD SIDE

Sudbury, Ont., native Jay Cochrane has wowed crowds and the world with awesome funambulist exploits

SHANE PEACOCK August 25 2003

A WALKER ON THE WILD SIDE

Profile

Sudbury, Ont., native Jay Cochrane has wowed crowds and the world with awesome funambulist exploits

SHANE PEACOCK

A SPECTACULAR high wire, a breathtaking work of engineering resembling the thin framework of a massive cathedral, rose last week at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, stretching 250 m from the Princes' Gates toward the giant windmill on the waterfront. The man who created this installation then walked on it, on a cable the width of an index finger, 20 storeys above the ground, with no net below. He has been many places on similar wires, wowing millions and raising money for children: to China, where he crossed the Yangtze River, above famous U.S. amusement parks, and between skyscrapers in cities from Las Vegas to Shanghai. Returning to Canada, to the very spot where his career began, he is setting his seventh world record for the 125th anniversary of the CNE. Over 18 days, Jay Cochrane plans to walk more than 10 km on his wire.

Forty-five years ago, in the summer of 1958, Danny Kaye was performing at the CNE Grandstand while the midway rides whirled. On one, unprecedented day, 332,000 people jammed through the turnstiles. Far away, in the mining town of Sudbury, Ont., 14-year-old Jimmy Cochrane was dreaming big dreams. He wanted his life to be filled with romance and daring. A few years earlier, when his mother took him to see a circus, he saw a man somersault on a high wire. It gave him an electric feeling in his stomach. “That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up,” he told his mother. “Oh no, you’re not,” she responded. “Oh yes, I am,” he said. Not long after, she and her husband were driving into town and noticed a child standing on the railing atop the water tower. “My God,” she gasped, “where are his parents?” Jimmy’s father looked up. “That,” he snapped, “is your son!”

Today, the Princes’ Gates look very much the way they did in 1958 when Cochrane appeared beneath them, having hitchhiked south from Sudbury without his parents’ permission. He headed straight for the grandstand. The renowned Royal Hanneford Circus was there in all its splendour, and the beautiful Princess Taj ana was doing a star turn on the single trapeze. In real life she was Mrs. Struppi Hanneford, and the boy sneaked backstage and knocked on her trailer door. When he explained that he was going to embark on a circus career, she kindly explained that that wasn’t a good idea. “Well,” he replied, “if it’s so

bad, then how come you’re still in it?”

He started cleaning up behind the horses for 50 cents a day. When the circus departed, Hanneford put the boy on a bus to Sudbury. But Cochrane turned up again at the show’s next stop, and kept appearing until the circus kept him. He pestered his superiors to teach him an act. First, he was a trapeze artist. Then he took to the high wire as Jay Cochrane, Prince of the Air.

High-wire walking is not, as many imagine, a daredevil’s stunt. It is a 2,000-year-old profession, much older than the circusone that is depicted in Roman woodcuts. Funambulists have crossed gorges and even the

Niagara River near the falls—unparalleled athletes like the Great Farini, Blondin, Karl Wallenda and Madame Saqui. Walking the wire requires brains, guts, precision and an extraordinary ability to concentrate.

Cochrane has become one of the immortals. But before he ascended to fame, he suffered a setback that would have destroyed most others. In 1965, as he walked on a 30m-high apparatus at Varsity Stadium in Toronto, it collapsed. Someone hadn’t tightened a bolt. Both his legs were badly broken and an ankle was crushed. At first, doctors told him it was unlikely he’d walk again, and if he did walk, he’d never perform.

Four years later, however, Cochrane was back. He had studied structural engineering during his convalescence, and began to erect his own wires. Today, they’re marvels of construction, spanning daunting distances and strung from precarious places. In 1970, the Hudson Bay Company opened a flagship skyscraper complex at the corner of Yonge and Bloor Streets in Toronto, and Cochrane was asked to walk 40 storeys high between two towers on his first “sky wire”—a very high wire erected outdoors. “When I got to the edge, I felt I couldn’t do it,” he remembers. Then he closed his eyes and ran out. “My life is like that,” he says. “It’s one step

at a time and don’t look back.”

In 1972, he returned to the CNE and set a world record by continuously crossing back and forth on a 100-m-long wire, completing four kilometres. But nothing—not even crossing Disney’s Epcot Centre in Florida or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Mo., or living on a wire in Puerto Rico for 21 days, or any of the hundreds of other walks he’s performed—prepared him for the challenge he met in 1995: crossing the Yangtze River near the future site of the Three Gorges Dam. The wire would have to be an astonishing two-thirds of a kilometre long and almost half a kilometre high, the greatest

combined height and length in history, like walking nearly seven football fields at the altitude of a low-flying plane. Cochrane arrived in a helicopter on Oct. 28, and started out to the swelling strains of Ravel’s Bolero. He crossed in 53 minutes.

That endeavour, viewed by 200,000 eyewitnesses and many millions on Chinese television, elevated him to iconic status in that country. A stamp was struck with his image, a school was named for him, and today he cannot walk down Chinese streets without drawing crowds. In 2001, he crossed Taiwan’s Love River on an even longer wire.

Here at home, despite six world records, Cochrane is seldom recognized. But as he wows them again at the CNE, he doesn’t seem too concerned. Tanned like the wealthy Floridian he now is, the single Cochrane looks younger than his 59 years, talks fast and moves fast. His greatest concerns are his craft and the charity work he does for sick and disadvantaged children. He has raised money for them worldwide, and hopes his feats inspire them to triumph over their challenges. (CNE proceeds go to the Tender Wishes Foundation, for terminally ill children.)

Cochrane has one remaining high-wire goal: to walk directly over both falls at Niagara—at the same time. The difficulties involved in raising such a wire and crossing it, he insists, are readily solvable. What’s more of an obstacle is the Niagara Parks Commission and its U.S. equivalent. To them, funambulism remains a stunt—they’ve banned it for more than a century. Farini, Blondín and several others walked the gorge in the 19th century. But no one has since. And no one has ever crossed directly over the falls.

For now, Cochrane is concentrating on his CNE wire, perhaps the last major act in his career before the prospective miracle at Niagara. Huge photos of his feats line the boulevard near the Princes’ Gates. He is walking every day of the Ex (Aug. 17-Sept. 1), and began this week with an eerie, spotlit night show. A few days earlier, minutes before he ascended the wire for the media, he spoke to Made ans. In acalm voice, he likened his life to a child’s dream. Then he crossed high above us, the CN Tower rising in the distance. Close by, that big windmill turned silently. Don Quixote never got it right, but the Sudbury kid just may have. fîül