Slackliners fly high above International Bridge in Vail at GoPro Mountain Games
Suspended over a creek full of kayakers at the International Bridge, world-class slackliners Heather Larsen and Mickey Wilson perform their favorite tricks and inspire the next generation of athletes to walk the line.
When you walk up to the International Bridge in Vail Village, you will hear the gasps and “oh my gosh” exclamations from the crowd before you see what everyone is looking at: a woman doing single-armed body holds and full splits while suspended on a thin line nearly 20 feet above the Gore Creek.
Slacklining has become one of the most popular events at the GoPro Mountain Games since the sport was first included in 2012. In past years, athletes from around the world have come to Vail to compete in various slackline events. COVID restrictions prevented the full competition from taking place this year, but professional slackliners Heather Larsen and Mickey Wilson are putting on multiple shows a day to demonstrate highline tricks at the International Bridge.
“The Mountain Games are definitely known as one of the premiere events in the slackline world,” Wilson said. “Making this event still happen in a safe way was the right call, and we’re here to share the experience and share the passion for slacklining.”
Wilson, a Colorado native born in Vail and raised in Breckenridge, is one of the people who helped bring slacklining to the GoPro Mountain Games nearly a decade ago. He picked up the sport in 2009, and is using the demonstrations to encourage other people to try it for themselves.
“I almost didn’t become a slackliner,” Wilson said. “I stepped on my first slackline in 2007, but I got discouraged because it was difficult. I’m trying to get people to learn that it’s okay for something to be hard, it’s okay for you to fail, and it’s definitely worthwhile to persevere through difficult activities. It’s the most difficult activities that are usually the most rewarding.”
Originated by rock climbers in the 1970s as an off-day activity, slacklining has developed into a sport all its own. There are a variety of styles, including tricklining, where the line is suspended lower to the ground and used like a trampoline to do aerial flips and tricks, and highlining, where a line is suspended high in the air between two fixed points. While beginners typically start in a park, learning to stand on a line close to the ground between two trees, advanced slackliners like Wilson and Larsen rig up lines between buildings, bridges, canyons and more.
“Once you start highlining, your eyes start drifting upwards,” Wilson said. “If there is air and two fixed points, you can slackline there. It’s one of those infinite possibilities sports.”
Larsen grew up in Tennessee, and was introduced to slacklining over a decade ago as a cross-training mechanism for rock climbing. She has since traveled the world pursuing slacklining projects, including rigging a line over the Tower of David in Jerusalem.
“For me it’s all about aesthetics,” Larsen said. “I don’t need the biggest baddest line, but I want the most beautiful line. I love being in nature, I love feeling at peace outside, and rigging a line with no distractions around other than a few birds chirping is how I prefer to pursue the sport.”
Two years ago, Larsen and Wilson initiated one of the first highline competitions in the country at the 2019 GoPro Mountain Games.
“We’re hoping to make the event even bigger in the future and have the best in the world here,” Larsen said.
During the show, Wilson gives a step-by-step demonstration of introductory tricks as he repeatedly tells the crowd around him that anybody can learn to slackline.
“This is not something that only crazy athletes can do!” Wilson said. “It is actually one of the safest extreme sports. If you have the ability to stand on one leg and walk upstairs, you can learn to slackline.”
Larsen then walks out onto the line and draws big reactions from the crowd as she moves seamlessly from a double-drop knee move with her hands above her head, to a full split, to a balance move where she goes upside down and supports herself on a single shoulder.
“What we’re all seeking as athletes is to find that flow state,” Larsen said. “Something that I’ve always loved about slacklining is that you can have a beginner and a pro on the same line, and both people can be learning something new. You just get creative, see what speaks to you, and go after that.”
The final slacklining shows of the 2021 GoPro Mountain Games will take place on Sunday at 10 a.m. and again at 2 p.m. Each show is 30 minutes long and will feature both Wilson and Larsen demonstrating their favorite tricks and inspiring the next generation of slackliners.