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Students find balance in slacking

fr slacklineWith a steady flow of noisy cars and chatty pedestrians zooming through the Western Carolina University campus, Kyle Coleman straddles a tiny rope, ignoring the commotion and focusing on the task at hand.

Not to fall.

“To be honest, it can sometimes be difficult to focus being next to the road,” the 20-year-old biology major said, wobbling slightly. “If anything though, it can help your focus because you have to tune all of these things out. If you start taking notice of the cars and people, you’ll fall off.”

Situated between two tree trunks in his front yard, Coleman has set up a slacklining rig a couple feet above the ground. Made from flat one-inch webbing used in rock climbing and other outdoor gear (carabineers, ratchet, etc), the rig is used not only to practice balance and focus, but also has become a hobby and competitive sport stretching across the country.

“It’s similar to tightrope walking. Last year, my buddy was a campus representative for this hammock company based out of Asheville,” Coleman said. “He had one that was thicker, with a hand crank. He brought it over one day and we all started trying it.”

Bounding along the line, Coleman stares straight ahead, never once taking his gaze from a specific point he focuses on, one way down the line, a lichen patch on a tree. Turning around the other way, a point is located on a cluster of cactuses sitting atop a nearby tree trunk.

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“Basically, the idea is to keep your balance and walk across it. People do back flips and land back on the line, others walk across canyons,” he said. “You see how far you can go at first and then see if you can get a little further next time. We have competitions to see who can go the furthest. Eventually, you get that down and try walking backwards or do 180 degree turns.”

Started by two college students in Oregon in 1979, the leisure sport of slacklining has taken off, with a bevy of styles, techniques and challenges emerging. Unlike tightrope walking, which consists of a steel cable, slacklining’s flat webbing provides for a different experience. One can set up a rig in a park or city, over a river or canyon, a foot off the ground or 10 stories in the air. Like the geographical variations, the avenues of creativity are endless, something that Coleman finds appealing.

“I want to get better and do tricks,” he said. “I want to eventually be able to work at Yellowstone National Park and there you’re surrounded by all these enormous rock and tree formations, which all turns into possibilities.”

Seemingly the first group delving into the sport on the WCU campus, Coleman and his friends would find a spot and perform certain tricks. Soon, curious onlookers would stop and want to “test the ropes” for themselves. Eventually, a few other lines sprung up, with others finding great entertainment in what slacklining can offer.

“We’ll go down and set up between some trees. People are always asking about it and want to try it out. We tell them to not look at their feet and stare straight ahead,” he said. “Most people, when they start to do this, want to look straight down at their feet. It’s like walking with a cup of coffee, if you look down you’re going to spill it.”

Sitting on the line, Coleman looks out onto the campus, where a blazing sun is now falling behind the Great Smoky Mountains. He said slacklining is a relatively inexpensive hobby to get into and the benefits from it can be both physical and spiritual.

“Before I started doing this, I was really into rock climbing. And doing that, I already had all the gear,” he said. “It definitely helps in your balance for rock climbing, it all translates. It’s the same kind of concept, except this is a lot more intense because you really have to focus.”

And though the state of affairs between social life and academic responsibilities in college can be a tough balancing act in itself, Coleman is thankful he’s found a potential lifelong passion in slacklining. To him, it’s something to keep the mind clear amid the daily toils of life.

“Once you can master the shortline, you keep moving up. Rock climbing is a lot of fun, but you can’t get out there everyday,” he said. “But, with this, I can set it up in my backyard and jump on it for a few minutes and just zone out. It’s addicting.”


Where it started

Slacklining was started in Oregon in 1979 by two college students. Instead of a tightrope that requires steel cable, a flat webbing of synthetic materials allows enthusiasts to set up slacklines almost anywhere very quickly and easily.

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