From Scouting to the Super Bowl: Eagle Scout slackliner shares his story

UPDATE (March 13, 2012): The BSA’s Health and Safety Team has officially approved slacklining — with certain safety qualifications. Click here for details. 

Who was that slacklining at the Super Bowl?

It’s Andy Lewis, who got worldwide attention (and a kiss from Madonna) during halftime with his show-stealing performance on a two-inch tightrope. (You can find some video by searching YouTube.)

“This was not just a show,” he says. “This was the most-viewed single airing of a show in history.”

But Lewis, the curly haired acrobat who is credited with bringing slacklining into the mainstream, reached greatness long before that famed moment.

Before slacklining in front of millions, before becoming a six-time world champion in the extreme sport, before amassing three Guinness World Records, and before having a line of shoes named after him, Lewis did what some might consider his biggest accomplishment: He earned the Eagle Scout Award. As a member of California Troop 59, Lewis didn’t stop there. He finished with an impressive 51 merit badges — good enough for two Silver Palms. 

Nearly 10 years after earning Eagle, Lewis has become an icon in the growing sport of slacklining. He credits his time in Scouting for leading him to a sport with real appeal for anyone who prefers challenging themselves outdoors to sitting inside.

At this point you might be wondering: What is slacklining? Here’s how Gibbon Slacklines, the brand used during Lewis’ Super Bowl show, describes the sport: “Slacklining is the act of balancing along a narrow, flexible piece of webbing which is low to the ground and usually anchored between two trees. It’s not just for epic performances, but rather something anyone can do in their own backyard.”

Love for adventure began in Scouting

Lewis, now 25, talked with me by phone today from Utah. Despite sharing the stage with a global music icon less than a week ago, he’s humble, quick with a laugh, and easy to talk to.

Not only that, he’s more than happy to talk about how his time in the Boy Scouts of America led him to an unimaginable place.

“Scouting definitely was a huge part of my entire life,” Lewis says. “Learning knots, learning how to problem-solve, going on trips.”

And now, slacklining. He says time spent learning the ropes in Scouting, including earning the Climbing merit badge, sharpened his skills for the sport he has helped grow for the past eight years.

“Scouting gave me a whole lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have had outside of Scouting,” he says. “My parents weren’t the richest of parents, so Scouting gave me opportunities I never would have gotten otherwise.”

Partly because of that confidence inspired by Scouting, Lewis now owns the world record for the longest walk across a slackline without a “leash.” He walked 132 feet across a slackline 100 feet off the ground. Yikes!

Even though he has taken the sport to new heights, Lewis says beginners can have a blast much closer to earth.

“We’ve been designing our company to target people who have no experience with slacklining,” says Lewis, referring to Gibbon Slacklines, one of his sponsors.

That’s right: sponsors. As a Scout growing up in Marin Council, did Lewis ever imagine that some day he’d be sponsored by GoPro cameras and have his own shoe, the Five Ten Andy Lewis Line Kings?

“Absolutely not,” he says.

Why slacklining?

Slacklining is a fun, laid-back outdoor activity that fosters a sense of community, Lewis says. So it’s not a stretch to understand why the sport has gained worldwide popularity.

For less than $100, a person can get all the gear needed to string up a slackline between trees. And it’s easy to learn, Lewis says.

“It’s a very simple concept. It’s not very hard to explain,” he says. “It’s like a shovel. Anybody can pick up and use a shovel.”

The BSA’s Health and Safety team tells me that they’re analyzing slacklining right now, but it is NOT an approved activity at the moment, so “don’t try this at home.”

UPDATE: Slacklining is now approved! Click here for details.

Traditional slacklining involves simply walking across a line like it’s a balance beam and is challenging enough for most. Lewis says slacklines are primarily designed to be used just a couple of feet of the ground and walked across, meaning injury risk is minimal.

“All these sports where there are accidents — biking, skateboarding — that just doesn’t happen with slacklining. When you lose your balance, you just step off the line and you’re back on the ground,” Lewis says.

Also, please leave the highlining — slacklining hundreds of feet of the ground — to experts like Lewis.

A sense of community

Lewis sees a clear parallel between slacklining and Scouting in that both foster a sense of community.

Yes, there are competitions in both. But slackliners and Scouts make having fun and working together — not winning at all costs — the primary goal.

“The most important part of of Scouting to me was being part of a community,” he says. “It’s a family. Same with slacklining — it’s a community-based sport. Everybody accepts one another. I really feel like the community aspect of Scouting and learning how to be a leader and a follower, and be part of a team — those are the skills that are important in both.”

That Scouting family was invaluable to Lewis as he earned Eagle, went on two Philmont treks, and attended the 2001 National Scout Jamboree. He remembers fondly a Scout leader named Willie Coronado and Lewis’ father, Roger Lewis.

“If it wasn’t for my father I never would’ve gotten Eagle,” Lewis says. “He really helped push me.”

As a 15-year-old in Scouting, Lewis says he didn’t fully appreciate the ways in which the BSA was making him a better person.

Ten years later — and after a breathless week of interviews with The New York Times, ABC News, National Geographic, and countless others — Lewis hears that message loud and clear.

“When you’re in Scouts it’s really hard to understand how it’s going to affect you in life,” he says. “When I meet people now who are 25, and they’ve never camped outside at night, I’m like, ‘Wow. I took for granted all that.'”

Photo from Gibbon Slacklines.

(H/T to California Scouter Lisa Schallenberger for sharing this story idea)