Unicycle team continues winning ways

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NORTH BEND - For most children, running around playing with a ball in a competitive nature tends to be the norm. However, the kids of the Panther Pride Unicycle Team take balance to a whole new level when they hit the court and courses on one wheel.

The team, stationed at North Bend Elementary for the last six years, has made a national name for itself and will continue to build upon its status in July when the team travels to Utah for the 2004 North American Unicycling Championships and Convention.

Unicycling seems like a unique and challenging sport to compete in, however the demands entailed from both an athletic perspective and a parent's perspective are thorough. Understanding the sport is the first challenge due to the fact that there are 10 different skill levels and so many various competitions.

Along with unicycling, which includes doing tricks and various acrobatic stunts, there is also racing and mountain unicycling. And not only are individuals competing, there are groups and pairs, along with competitions based purely on skill and form.

The sport is unusual due to the fact that it is uniquely individual, yet can be extremely entertaining when stunts are performed by a team, for which the Panther Pride team is recognized.

There is no official season for the team and it's busy all year. Practices are combined with halftime performances at area events, all in preparation for the team's competitive meets, which include the World Championships in Japan this year. Those appearances include performing at Seattle Sonic's, Seattle Storm's, University of Washington's and Seattle Pacific University's athletic events.

The work for Panther Pride members that goes into performing on such a nimble object as a unicycle is countered by efforts to sustain their name both nationally and worldwide. These efforts are challenging due to the extreme costs that accumulate through travel, equipment and costumes. Parents become involved in their child's participation in the sport. Unlike most other sports that require simply a net and ball, unicycling requires different unicycles for different competitions.

Panther Pride has made a name for itself through athletic achievements, but the team can also be commended on its consistent efforts towards fund raising.

"It helps, however the costs are high and require a large level of commitment and dedication," explains Barb Kowalski, manager of the Panther Pride team as well as parent to Megan Kowalski, who will be participating in the World Championships held this July in Japan.

The team has various fund-raising events, which help parents and coaches fathom the high costs of competing on the level that their children have become so engrossed in. There is an annual dinner and raffle held to help support the team, as well as a "Unithon," in which riders do laps for pledges.

This year the Panther Pride team searched the world over and compiled an exceptional cookbook.

"It is great because the team's riders contributed as well as the team's families, and riders from all over the world helped aid in the creation of this phenomenal cookbook," said Kowalski.

Riders for Panther Pride vary in age from 7 to 19. Although practices take place at North Bend Elementary, riders are welcome from all around. Currently there are students participating from Opstad Elementary, Snoqualmie Elementary, North Bend Elementary, Sammamish Elementary and Chief Kanim Middle School.

The sport is important for these children because developing skills helps foster learning, which is open to a few falls along the way. And sometimes these spills leave nice bruises to show for the learning process involved.

"Unicycling is a real confidence builder and it helps the kids realize that they can achieve it on their own, through work," said Kowalski, who has witnessed all of the spills and growth of her own daughter, Megan.

"I love all parts of riding, there is not one part over the other, it is all great," said Niki Crook, a student at Chief Kanim who anxiously awaits showing off her new skills in Utah.

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