Catch the conversation here: 'The Slackliner' and The Student
Through the various COVID lockdowns, quarantines, house arrests - whatever you want to call them - walking has been my saviour. Not just for getting the blood pumping and the legs moving but keeping the old cognitive curiosity ticking over too. One such curious sighting I came across recently, in the front garden of one of the houses on my favourite walking route, was a narrow strip of material stretched out long and anchored at each end by a tree. I knew from coincidental social media scrolling and our previous episode with ‘Sketchy’ Andy Lewis that this was indeed what is known as a slackline.
Now, said slackline, tightroped between the two towering spruce-looking trees in the front garden of this house, was no more than a metre off the floor. Lose your balance and fall from it and I imagine the worst damage you could realistically do would be to sprain an ankle or bruise your butt. I was (and still am) tempted to hop on and give it a go, but slacklining is still something I’d approach with at least some trepidation - even from the modest height of less-than-a-metre off the ground…
I can’t imagine mounting this piece of taut fabric (just a few inches thick) and walking across it unsupported, using only my balance, 25 metres up in the air. No way, Jose. Someone who has done exactly that though is Alex Mason - 23-year-old professional slackliner who was crowned Slackline World Champion at the tender age of 16. And yep, you guessed it, Alex is the latest guest we’re chuffed to be welcoming to ONEOFTHE8.
“I was somewhat timid coming into slacklining; things were scary because they should be”
With his feet now firmly back on the ground, Alex is in the midst of full-time studying as he prepares to graduate from college. The lead up to this point though was less than linear as he spent his childhood and teenage years balancing education with a serious commitment to slacklining, first as a hobby and then as a professional champion.
Alex grew up in El Cerrito, California, in the San Francisco Bay area and spent a great portion of his early years rock climbing with his sister at a local gym. At the gym, 9/10-year-old Alex took note of the slacklines available and dabbled in what they had to offer but had zero intention of ever really taking it seriously. Little did he know that slacklining would go on to so profoundly shape the next decade of his existence.
Alex now describes slacklining as the “first thing that ever really made [him] happy” and reminisces about how, at the ages of 11-13, got better and better at it, eventually noticed for his aptitude by the rock climbing gym’s owner. At the age of 14, Alex entered his very first slacklining competition - the very tip of an iceberg which would eventually see him decorated as Slackline World Champion in 2013 and recognised as a pro athlete in his sport.
“Fear and excitement are the same thing, so I try to internalise that at all times”
It was at this gym in El Cerrito that Alex would meet Andy Lewis - the guy I mentioned back in the intro of this article and the heralded ‘father of modern tricklining’. If you’ve listened to Andy’s episode on our podcast or read his story on our blog, you’ll know what Alex is talking about when he tells us how Andy is oh so fearless in the face of risk and danger. Perhaps sometimes too fearless, Alex mulls, describing to us how he and Andy found a mutual balancing act whereby he encouraged Andy to be a little more calculated in terms of safety, while Andy pushed him to reject fear more confidently.
Andy thinks nothing is scary, Alex tells us and is forever appreciative of how “[Andy] pushed [him] towards disregard for harm” in a way that opened new opportunities for him. Now, Alex tells us, “fear and excitement are the same thing, so I try to internalise that at all times”. How does he deal with fear now? By “drawing conclusions post-event” and analysing the situation afterwards - a concept which takes a sub-human level of courage from where we’re standing.
Fearlessness eventually lead Alex to become part of a project with a $200,000 budget, shot by renowned National Geographic photographer, Keith Ladzinski. The 2016 project was produced by Red Bull and saw Alex climb eight different slacklines, interconnected to create a ‘Slackladder’, designed to ascend a 25 metre waterfall on the island of Hawaii. Quite the life experience for someone who was still yet to reach their twenties, of which there were many more, including the Clothesline project in Istanbul and a solar eclipse slackline in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“It’s kind of hard to quantify how many life lessons I learned growing up in this way because there was no lesson plan, no bullet points… I just kind of picked things up”
Alex admits to being “shocked and awed” by the Slackladder project and when asked how these kinds of experiences compare to what he was being taught at college, he dubbed it “a different kind of learning”. “It’s kind of hard to quantify how many life lessons I learned growing up in this way because there was no lesson plan, no bullet points… I just kind of picked things up”, he tells us during our conversation. What we wanted to know though is how this ever-expanding respect as a professional champion felt to a young, fresh-faced kid still in juggling schoolwork simultaneously…
“I quickly became known as ‘the slackliner’”, he tell us and was cut some slack (pun totally intended) when it came to skipping parts of school to accommodate his competitions and global travels. He found that the respect and attention he had garnered was “an ever present weight” and eventually felt that trying to spread himself too thinly between the two was having a negative impact on both sides of his life. Now, Alex has decided that it’s time to pour his undivided attention into his studies and for that, we wish him well - but certainly hope to see him back up on the professional slackline one day in the not-too-distant future.
“Just about everybody I meet inspires me”
As with all ONEOFTHE8 guests, we wanted to get to the bottom of who or what most inspires Alex, to which he answered with an awesome response we could all learn a lot from: “Just about everybody I meet inspires me”. After years of travelling the world at a young page, choosing an unconventional route through early education and taking a crash course of different world cultures through his involvement in slacklining, Alex has learnt that he can take something positive from every path he crosses.
Whether it’s happiness, kindness, excitement… there is something good to be found in all human beings. With some, you might just have to search that little bit harder but if you adjust your focus, you’re sure to find it. Alex relishes “learning from everybody in every way” and well, that’s one of life’s most valuable lessons - and one you won’t find in the index of a dusty old textbook.
To check out more of Alex’s stomach-flipping stunts and stunning slackline work, check him out on Instagram @alexomason. To find out more about the Clothesline project and the solar eclipse slackline in Wyoming, make sure to catch up with Alex’s episode on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast.