May 21—BELLOWS FALLS — How did 18-year-old Ariana Wunderle find herself nearly 7 feet off the ground, walking a tightrope in 4-inch heels on a Monday afternoon?
"I was born into a circus family," she explained in an interview Thursday.
On Monday, Wunderle, a senior at Bellows Falls Union High School, spent nearly an hour up on a wire in the school's gymnasium, where she appeared to break the Guinness World Record for the farthest distance walked on a wire in high heels.
The Rockingham, Vt., resident walked the tightrope for a cumulative distance of 639 feet and 8.5 inches (194.983 meters) — far exceeding the record of 49 feet and 2.6 inches (15 meters).
Wunderle's record attempt is under review, according to Kylie Galloway, a Guinness World Records spokesperson, who said the process typically takes between 12 and 15 weeks. To secure the title, the attempter must follow all the guidelines set forth by Guinness and submit evidence of completion, she said.
For Wunderle, that includes ensuring her heels were the required 4 inches and the wire was the right distance from the ground, Wunderle said.
Wunderle has been walking the wire for much of her life. Her father, Troy, a clown-college alum, performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, before taking a job with Circus Smirkus, a Greensboro, Vt.-based nonprofit that aims to get kids involved with the circus arts. Wunderle's mother, Sara, also worked for the organization.
Ariana Wunderle made her first appearance in the ring at 2 years old, and most of her early days included clowning acts with her dad and sister, Emily, she said. At 7, she stepped up to a tightrope for the first time, and by the following summer, she was performing her new skillset in front of audiences.
Through her summers with Circus Smirkus, she connected with other tightrope walkers and generated ideas for new feats to try. Before deciding to give high heels a whirl, she learned to tightrope in ballet pointe shoes.
Wunderle's record attempt was her senior project for school and she spent a lot of time researching the requirements for a Guinness World Record, and figuring out how to rig a tightrope in a high school gym where people could watch from the bleachers. ("Because growing up in the circus — I like audiences," Wunderle said, laughing.)
She bought a pair of metallic stilettos — the bottoms of which have slowly deteriorated from grinding on the wire — with a 2-centimeter-wide heel. She prepped the gym, where the fluorescent glare of the floor made it difficult to see the wire's ends, and it took some strategic mat placement to block the shine.
But there was no mat directly under Wunderle, and she walked 6 feet, 8 inches above the wooden floor knowing a tumble would be bad news.
To beat the record set in 2014 by Oxana Seroshtan of Russia, Wunderle needed to walk from one end of the 19-foot wire to the other four times. But when she began her attempt and made it to her sixth pass, she decided to try to double the record. After eight passes, 10 seemed like the best-case scenario. But somewhere around the 20th pass, she was still feeling good.
"I was so proud of myself and I realized, like, how comfortable and confident I felt on the wire," she said. "I actually just got to this point where ... it felt like I was just walking on the ground, I guess."
In total, Wunderle walked the wire end to end 52 times. She did it for as long as she felt safe and in control, she said, but ultimately stepped off the wire when her ankles were feeling wobbly.
"I stepped on the platform and I was just like, 'How did I just do this? This is crazy' " Wunderle said.
As part of her senior project, Wunderle aimed to raise $1,000 for Circus Smirkus. As of Friday, she had raised $3,650.
Wunderle is set to graduate in a few weeks, and plans to attend Ithaca College in New York this fall. She's already identified an institution near campus that offers opportunities for tightrope walking, so her wire-walking days aren't over.
"I definitely see myself continuing down this path alongside with academics."
Molly Bolan can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BolanMolly.