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For Cancer-Stricken Aerialist, Life Itself Is Death-Defying Feat : Challenge: Angel Wallenda, who lost a leg to cancer, will use an experimental prosthesis made by a San Diego firm in her famous family’s high-wire act.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Angel Wallenda, life with cancer has a lot in common with the precarious act of walking a wire-thin tightrope her circus family made famous.

She takes one small, careful step at a time. And she doesn’t look back.

“Having cancer and walking on the wire have their similarities,” said the 24-year-old aerialist, who lost her right leg and parts of both lungs to the disease in 1987. “In both situations, you’re living for the moment.

“You try to be intensely aware of every little thing and nothing at all--all at the same time. And you always know you can fall at any minute.”

Even after three operations, the spunky Wallenda, accompanied by her husband, eighth-generation aerialist Steven Wallenda, has returned to the high-wire act popularized during the circus heyday of the late 1920s when the Wallendas wowed the world with spectacular high-wire stunts such as the seven-person pyramid.

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Like the death-defying Wallendas who came before her, she has routinely traversed 24-foot-high wires on foot or bicycle, this time using various leg prosthetics.

But the limitations of the artificial leg have changed her once-decisive, high-flying style.

Now a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society, Wallenda was in San Diego this week, being fitted with an experimental new prosthetic leg made by a tiny local firm. The new prosthesis, she claims, is so sensitive that it’s almost like the real thing--and just may give new freedom to people who have lost their lower limbs.

And this morning, Wallenda plans to climb back onto the high-wire to prove it.

In a circus-like stunt that would have made both Barnum and Bailey proud, Wallenda says she will take a blindfolded walk along a tightrope 10 feet off the ground--a stunt she could not do with other prosthetic legs--to demonstrate the advancements being made in the technology of the devices.

“When I walk on the wire with a regular prosthesis, I always have to keep looking down--not look straight ahead like regular wire walkers do--because I can’t feel my prosthetic foot touch down on the wire. But this leg is so sensitive, I can feel things. I can feel my foot when I step.”

On Saturday morning, she walked about the cluttered workshop at the RGP Prosthetic Research Center, a drab, nondescript building not far from San Diego State University. It’s a work space where half-finished prosthetic legs sit clenched in vices, hang on walls and rest against doors like wheels in some bicycle repair shop.

Director and owner Thomas Guth and his staff, who design prosthetic legs for some 300 athletes and others each year, made Wallenda three legs--one for her high-wire act, one for regular walking and one for wearing high-heels.

“Just think, I can wear high heels again, just like a real lady,” the petite blonde squealed in delight. “These new legs give you suction-like fit so you’re not afraid the thing is going to fall off.”

She struggled into the prosthetic leg like a novice skier putting on a new plastic ski boot.

But once adjusted, she strode across the workshop floor with the grace of a model on a runway.

“These legs can help people other than me,” she said. “They can help people who have lost limbs feel natural again. Heck, they won’t be able to (just) walk, they’ll be able to do any sport they could before they lost their leg.”

On hand Saturday were two disabled athletes with prostheses made by the San Diego firm.

Casey Pieretti is a 25-year-old Santa Barbara man who lost a basketball scholarship after a 1985 traffic accident with a drunk driver in which his right leg was cut off below the knee.

Now Pieretti is a professional roller-blader who plans to skate cross-country in April to raise funds for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and to show what athletic heights can be achieved by the physically disabled.

“This thing has changed my life,” he said of the black plastic, titanium and graphite artificial leg, which resembled a limb of the Bionic man and cost $10,000.

“It’s the fit. I can jump from a set of stairs and land on my feet. I can even sleep in this thing. And I walk so smoothly, if I don’t tell people it’s not real, they wouldn’t know it.”

Mark D’Amico, another one-legged athlete who will compete in several swimming events in the para-Olympic events in Barcelona this summer, had a more up-front approach to his infirmity.

He almost always wears shorts to expose his artificial leg. He also wears a watch on his leg and a sticker that reads “No Fear.”

“It’s an education to people,” he said. “I enjoy the stares I get. Most people know that me and my leg are no different from they and theirs.”

Meanwhile, Angel Wallenda maintains her own positive attitude about life with cancer.

And she continues to brave performances without the safety of a net, even though her grand-uncle through marriage, Karl Wallenda, plunged 150 feet to his death during a 1978 wire act.

She knows she’s got husband Steven for support, the modern aerialist who has walked the cable of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and who has developed a “race of death” stunt during which he walks a wire between two cars moving at 60 m.p.h.

And she’s got her 5-year-old son, Steven II, who has already shown signs he’s ready to carry the already high-flying Wallenda tradition into the next century.

“You don’t let these kinds of things get you down. Never. I’ve gone to veterans’ hospitals and schools and talk to a lot of adults and kids alike,” she said.

“I tell them that they can do anything, they can accomplish the world if they want to. Sometimes, you have to make changes, but that’s life.

“I think Karl Wallenda would agree with that message. I think he’d be proud of me.”


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