SEOUL, South Korea – Contestants braved strong winds and swooping birds Thursday as they walked a 0.62-mile-long high wire across a river in a competition that organizers claimed was a record-breaking distance for their feats of balance.
The World High-Wire Championships are part of the capital's annual Hi Seoul Festival, with 18 contestants from nine countries each being given an hour to complete the walk across the high wire stretching above the Han River. The fastest wins a $15,000 award.
The iron rope is supported on 72-foot-high towers on each bank of the river. A safety net was deployed under the sections of the wire over the river banks, but otherwise the walkers face a plunge into the water if they fall.
Holding a pole for maintaining balance, the first contestant — South Korea's Kwon Won-tae — glided across the 1.2-inch-thick wire as hundreds on each bank of the river cheered and clapped wildly.
Kwon, a famous tightrope walker in South Korea, flinched a few times when his balance was disrupted by the wind and birds before completing the walk in 17 minutes and 7 seconds.
South Korea has a tradition of tightrope walking going back centuries. The skill was featured last year in the popular South Korean film "King and the Clown" that centers on a troupe of entertainers who become court jesters. In the movie, Kwon was a stand-in for the lead actor in tightrope walking scenes.
"It's amazing. I am too shaken to speak. I feel like it was myself out there," said Song Won-sun, a 53-year-old businessman watching the event. "I am just worried that the wind will disturb the contestants."
Russia's Alexey Marchenko was disqualified after falling into the river with about 164 feet left to go.
American Pedro Carrillo of Reno, Nev., said it would be "something very big" for him to complete such a long distance by high-wire walking, which he has been doing for 43 years.
"I feel the wind, that's all I worry about," said Carrillo, 60. "But I think I can keep going once I start."
And so he did, completing the walk in 17 minutes and 7 seconds — the same time as Kwon.