Published: July 18, 2017 By

President of the CU slackline club and two sponsored student slackliners share their perspectives on the burgeoning alternative sport


Years ago, alternative sports engagement on the University of Colorado Boulder campus implied tossing a Frisbee across a crowded field, or hacky-sacking oneself into an acrobatic frenzy by the University Memorial Center Fountain. These days, there’s a group of young men and women slacklining across Norlin Quad with a great deal more skill than you see it tried in local parks.

Three of them recently discussed the sport and its place on campus and in student life: Tyler Shalvarjian, a recent CU Boulder graduate from Los Angeles; Eli Ellis, a continuing geology student from Boulder; and Justin Wagers, a recent graduate from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., who was raised and lives in Boulder. His mother, Tina Pittman Wagers, is an instructor of psychology at CU.

Ellis and Wagers are each bona fide, sponsored athletes (by Slackline Industries). Wagers is a trickliner, meaning he flips, grabs, spins and performs a universe of unnamable tricks on a line two inches wide. While all three men are skilled highliners, able to traverse lines hundreds of feet long high above a canyon, Slackline Industries sponsors Ellis for it.


wagers

Justin Wagers. Photo by Craig Levinsky.


For the past two years, Shalvarjian served as president of Slackers at CU, the CU Boulder slackline club, which he helped expand from its student-base of 30 to include the greater community of Boulder’s roughly estimated 300 slackliners.

Shalvarjian earned his degree from the Leeds School of Business with an emphasis in marketing, and has already started his own healthy-alternative coffee creamer company (an idea he originally pitched in an entrepreneurial class), which he plans to base in Boulder. He is something of a leader in the local slacklining community, a role that Shalvarjian shouldered quite naturally. In 2016, he partnered with Justin’s father, Ken Wagers, and five other individuals, to have slacklining legalized and formally regulated in Boulder, something the sport very much needed as it rapidly grows in popularity.

During introductions on Norlin Quad, Ellis set up a short practice line, one inch thick, roughly seven feet off the ground, and the three young men were running up and down it. While watching the other two, Shalvarjian explained that the health and condition of the trees was more sacred and protected than that of the slackliners themselves.

Then, Ellis and Shalvarjian took turns on the line, stopping to execute poses. Wagers, alternatively, repeated backflips and grabs as if he were on a trampoline. Ellis, too, flashed a few tricks. And this more-or-less represented the differences in the three men’s styles.

Here is the interview, edited for length:

How did you get into slacklining? What’s the learning curve?

Shalvarjian: I started just before coming to CU. I saw a Facebook video of a friend slacklining over a creek… It took me about a week to do a full cross. Slacklining kind of taught me that practice makes perfect. Once you get that basic balance on the line and those first couple of steps, the rest comes a lot easier. You just have to scale gradually, scale in length and height and sag, which is how loose you set the line, how much tension it has.

Ellis: I started in middle school. There are always slacklines around Boulder and at The Spot, here in Boulder. I was on the team there for a while. I coach there now. It probably took me a couple of days to walk it, and then try stuff besides walking it. As soon as we could walk it, my friends and I just started trying tricks.

 

Wagers: I just watched YouTube videos and thought it was awesome. It took me about a week, just trying after school, trying to get one more step further, and one more step, and then finally I could walk it. I started early in high school, learning in my back yard, but it didn’t come easy. I was probably doing it for about six months before I did my first flip, but I was big into the video aspect of it. I started making videos of myself, and other friends of mine would collaborate on them and that’s how we pushed each other, through landing a new trick and making it look cool on video.

How do you get a sponsorship?

Ellis: You either know the people and are involved with them already through the community, or you can put together videos and send them into different companies… Just hanging around, getting noticed.

It’s nice just to hear the canyon beneath you, birds and stuff. I also like to listen to music and zone out and kind of feel the line, and really embrace the moment, not try to rush it."


Ellis

Eli Ellis. Photo by Katrin Bell. 

What’s the benefit of being sponsored?

Wagers: As a trickliner, if you have a good sponsorship, you get paid a bit monthly, and you get free travel accommodations to competitions. There are different types of sponsorships. A lot of people have clothing sponsors. It’s mostly just to support what you love. Not a lot of people can really live off of slacklining right now.

Let’s talk about highlining. You already told me some people do distance, some do tricks, but you’re all into highlining in one degree or another.

Ellis: I like to set up the biggest highlines I can, as I high as I can over a canyon. The biggest line I’ve set is directly over the top of [a canyon here in Boulder], about 300 feet tall, 380 feet long.

I know you guys are tied to the line for safety when you do that, but I imagine there are people in this world who do that without the safety measures?

Ellis: Free solo? People do it. I think the record is close to 200 meters long, 100 meters high, in British Columbia.

What does it feel like when you’re walking a slackline, 300 feet above the ground, with nothing beneath you?

Ellis: The best! Empowering. I love looking down and seeing trees. They look so much cooler from up top than from the ground… I try to highline once a week at the minimum, but that just takes a lot of planning, because I need other people to go with me. I need to tape my webbing and get my gear in order, and make sure I’m bringing just the right gear I need, not too much or too little.

Shalvarjian: We went longlining yesterday on a 160-foot line. I can walk three times that distance when I’m 10 feet off the ground, but when I’m a hundred feet off the ground, I can’t walk that line, nor can I even walk a 40-foot line. It’s just a totally different mental game.Ellis: Walking backwards, looking down, when you can see your leashing in front of you and you know that if you fall it’s gonna get you… I like that.

Shalvarjian: I participate in controlled risk. I tend to think about the worst that could happen. I think the weakest point of a highline is the harness or the rope that I’m tied into, and I always think, what if I slip out of the harness and die? I don’t want to die yet. But that’s just something we all fear. It’s not much different up there. You get into this mental game with yourself, ‘I’m not going to stand up,’ or, ‘I can’t do this,’ or, ‘I’m going to fall out of my harness and hit the ground,’ or whatever it is. It’s more mental, highlining.

Ellis: It’s nice just to hear the canyon beneath you, birds and stuff. I also like to listen to music and zone out and kind of feel the line, and really embrace the moment, not try to rush it. 


Tyler Shalvarjian

Tyler Shalvarjian. Photo by Craig Levinsky. 


Do you guys go sky jumping?

- No way. No.
- It’s so dangerous.
- It’s hard to… I think… No, it’s just so dangerous.

That surprises me.

Shalvarjian: It’s not an adrenaline sport.

Wagers: Definitely not.

Ellis: People think it’s an adrenaline sport, but if you’re full of adrenaline you won’t be able to stand up. I just always think how beautiful the spot is, and that it’s safe, and we’ve all put a lot of time into making this safe thing happen. I know it just feels really good and I just try to focus on how good it feels in the moment, focus on some good music.

So, do you guys watch Man on Wire religiously, or what?

Shalvarjian: Not at all. People always say, ‘Hey, look it’s a tight rope.’ Nope. Different sport. It’s a slackline.

Wagers: They’re totally different disciplines, but they’re both really difficult.

Ellis: The world record is two miles on a tightrope but that’s just two miles of the same ten steps, because a tightrope is tied off and anchored just about every ten feet-

Wagers: Where on a slackline, the line moves and it’s different at every step of the line.

Ellis: You get nodes, because a longline has sinusoidal waves, so if you’re standing on a node point, certain points are really easy to stand on, like impossibly easy. You’ll just step on a point and it will be dead still, and sometimes, it’s really funky and that’s kind of the fun, I think.

Wagers: Every line movement just comes from your energy, from standing on the line, so it’s kind of up to you to control it as much as possible.

 

Everything about slacklining seems like a Zen practice. It’s very in the moment. Is there a Zen aspect to highlining?

- Very
- Yes.

Ellis: Super meditative.

Wagers: It can get you really focused. I’m told a lot of people have one mantra that they’ll see in their heads over and over when they slackline. A friend of mine just says, ‘one more step, one more step.’ It’s a really meditative thing. If you want to walk something really long, you have to only be thinking about that one thing and not have other thoughts confounding your focus.

Tell me about the future of slacklining. Are you in the X-Games now? Do you see your sport getting there?

Wagers: We did some demos in the X-Games. We did a competition down in Austin last year at the Summer X-Games. Eventually maybe we’ll get there. It would be cool for tricklining to be there.

Ellis: The main thing at the Go-Pro Games is the Slackline Industries demo competition.

Wagers: GoPro Mountain Games are up in Vail every summer. We throw a big trickline competition in the middle of Vail Village, and it’s kind of the central spot, and everyone comes and checks this competition, among other mountain games, kayaking and mountain biking, climbing and everything else.


wagers, shalvarjian, ellis

Shalvarjian, Wagers and Ellis. Photo by Craig Levinsky. 


And the community? How many slackliners do you have in the club? How many in Boulder?

Shalvarjian: In Boulder, on campus, we probably have about 30 active members. There’s a core group of 10 and 15. And Slackers at CU, it started as a student organization, but we invited the community to be a part of it, as well. We have 300 people on our Facebook group. There’s a Facebook group called slackchat, and they just hit 12,000 members. That’s the biggest online organization, and that’s global.

I don’t want to compartmentalize the different styles of Eli and Justin, but it seems like Justin is more of an athletic walker with overlapping components maybe of Eli’s and Tyler’s style, but it seems like your style, Eli, is more about, “it’s one of the coolest things you can do in nature. You’re from here. And this is just a great way to connect to nature.”

Ellis: That’s exactly it. I really like climbing, but highlining has just captured my interest more. I just love being suspended out there. My favorite thing is when birds start flying next to you. It really feels like you’re flying. That’s why I do it.

Tina Pittman Wagers, mother of Justin, suggests, from a clinical perspective, slacklining offers more than just the thrill of walking a 100-plus foot line of rope.

“There’s starting to be a little bit of research emerging on some of the cognitive benefits of slacklining, much like other sports or activities that require a lot of singular focus,” she said. “You can’t be on a slackline doing something difficult while thinking about 15,000 other things. You have to just focus on that one thing, and there’s a lot of benefit to that.”

Interview by Craig Levinsky
Images by Craig Levinsky and Katrin Bell