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Have unicycle, will travel: Panther Pride riders are U.S. freestyle champs, headed for Italy

The Panther Pride team were honored by the North Bend City Council in August. Pictured from left are, front, Nik Fisher, Alex Lancaster, Shane Dowling, Austin Oberg, Kaitlyn Rogers, Brianna Dowling, Miranda Nelson, Hanna Oberg, Piper Hawley; middle, Elizabeth Dowling, Kyley Hayes, David Adwan, Sara Shilot, Chantelle Troutman-Watson, Jalenica Troutman-Watson, Isaiah Leitz, Coach Alan Tepper, and Councilmember Jeanne Pettersen; back, Councilmember Ross Loudenback, Mayor Ken Hearing, and Councilmembers Chris Garcia, Jonathan Rosen, and Alan Gothelf. - Carol Ladwig / Snoqualmie Valley Record
The Panther Pride team were honored by the North Bend City Council in August. Pictured from left are, front, Nik Fisher, Alex Lancaster, Shane Dowling, Austin Oberg, Kaitlyn Rogers, Brianna Dowling, Miranda Nelson, Hanna Oberg, Piper Hawley; middle, Elizabeth Dowling, Kyley Hayes, David Adwan, Sara Shilot, Chantelle Troutman-Watson, Jalenica Troutman-Watson, Isaiah Leitz, Coach Alan Tepper, and Councilmember Jeanne Pettersen; back, Councilmember Ross Loudenback, Mayor Ken Hearing, and Councilmembers Chris Garcia, Jonathan Rosen, and Alan Gothelf.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig / Snoqualmie Valley Record

Filing into the meeting room at the Mount Si Senior Center, the group of athletes whispered and giggled, clinked and jingled. The whispers and giggles were from the excitement of being honored by the North Bend City Council. The clinking and jingling were from the medals they earned to achieve that recognition.

Members of the Panther Pride unicycle team went to the North American Unicycle Championships and Convention in Madison, Wisc., July 23 to 30, and returned with 50-some medals, and an invitation to bring their first-place Club Artistic Freestyle performance, the top award of the championships, to Italy next year for world competition.

“I can’t talk enough about how proud I am of the Panther Pride Unicycle Team,” North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing said at the August 16 council meeting when he presented the team and coach Alan Tepper with a certificate of achievement.

Neither can Berry Rogers, an assistant coach and parent who accompanied 23 members of the team to the national event and was inspired this year to try unicycling himself. He has even higher praise for the coach, who started the unicycle club at North Bend Elementary more than 30 years ago.

“It’s all Coach Tepper,” Rogers says. “He has always believed in (unicycling) as a great way to get the kids outside.”

Riders have picked up a few things about teaching from Tepper, too, and many of the club’s more experienced riders, regardless of their age, help mentor the beginning riders during club practices. Becky Banning, a 12-year rider and four-time winner of the national freestyle individual competition, said by e-mail that she has helped coach many of the younger members of the team. Parents help coach, too.

Riding a unicycle can build confidence. Isaiah Leitz, 22, and a Panther Pride member for the last 10 years, likes the unicycle because “when you go for a ride, you’re probably going to do something nobody’s ever done before,” he said.

In competition, he likes the trick events of flatland and street riding, but he also enjoys performing at halftime shows with the team, and still tries to make a few performances each year although he’s attending school at Western.

“The crowd really likes it,” he said, and “it’s fun when they get really excited.”

Panther Pride riders perform at a variety of halftime shows throughout the school year—their season runs from October to April —and at many of the summer festivals’ parades.

From the end of the season in April until nationals in July, some unicyclists are on vacation, but a lot are still training, three to four hours a day, five days a week, for the national competition.

Events include track races, high jump, long jump, various skills trials, flatland tricks, street riding with obstacles, downhill and distance racing, and creative performance for individuals, pairs and teams. Each Panther Pride member attended nationals, and each had entered in three or four events. Most brought home at least one medal for a top-three placement.

“I believe the medal count is well over 50, across all of the events” Rogers said.

The biggest win by far was the club’s Artistic Freestyle first place, the top award of the weeklong championships. The team of David Adwan, Banning, Briana and Shane Dowling, Alex Lancaster, Leitz, Sara Shilot, Tony Torchia, and Chantelle and Jalenica Troutman-Watson won the coveted prize, which Panther Pride has earned in the past.

“It’s kind of the big award to come home with,” explained Rogers, and since this competition was a qualifying round for next year’s world championships in Italy, “There’s a very good possibility that a number of our riders will be invited to join the national team going to Italy in 2012.”

Coach Tepper estimated the cost per rider for the July 2012 event at about $5,000, including a stop at the national competition in Michigan in early July.

The group will start a fund-raising campaign soon, to cover the riders’ travel expenses.

“The funding would be just for the riders, for their portion of the competition,” Tepper said.

To schedule the Panther Pride team to perform at an event, call Tepper at 425-831-8384. For more information on the club, which is open to all, visit www.pput.org.

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