Unicyclists have fun on one wheel

On any given afternoon you can find Alan Tepper in the gym at North Bend Elementary School, surrounded by unicyclists.

Tepper is the coach for the Panther Pride Unicycle Team, a group of about 100 unicyclists of varying skill levels. Tepper works with different skill level groups on different days, but spends every afternoon surrounded by riders on single wheels.

The team is preparing for a busy schedule of halftime shows and other performances, as well as upcoming national and world championships. The group recently performed in the Macy's Parade on Thanksgiving in Seattle.

The unicycle team actually started back in 1977 as a gymnastics group. Tepper said he didn't get as many people interested in the group as he would have liked at first, so he turned it into a circus arts program and included mini trampoline, tumbling, juggling and unicycling. From there, it just evolved into a unicycling-only club.

Tepper said there is a definite progression that takes place in learning to ride a unicycle.

"It's not a matter of getting on and experimenting," he said. "You have to celebrate small successes and do it a safer way."

A rider starts against the wall and learns how to get on the unicycle. He or she sits against the wall and learns how to step off with control in the front and catch the seat. Tepper said that first step usually only takes a new rider about 15 minutes to master.

The second step in the progression is to turn sideways and control the pedals while still hanging on to the wall.

"They rock back and forth and start to feel what happens to the entire unicycle when they're moving the wheel," he said.

Then a rider will turn around and face forward.

"They have to come forward with the center of gravity slightly in front of dead center," Tepper said.

Once a rider gets comfortable, spotters help him or her gradually across the gym.

The international level system for unicycling includes 10 levels. Someone can become a level 1 rider by riding 50 meters.

"There's a big difference between being a non-rider and riding 50 meters," Tepper said.

At the beginning of each practice, Tepper leads the riders in stretching exercises and then guides them through some basic moves and techniques. He gives them step-by-step instructions and tips. Some riders fall quite often, but they always get right back on the seat.

A couple of weeks ago, sophomore Ashley Mikolajczak was nursing an injured knee during a Thursday afternoon practice.

"I fall and hurt myself a lot," she said.

A level 5 unicyclist, Mikolajczak said she moved out to the Valley from Issaquah and saw the unicyclists perform.

"I said, 'Oh my God, what is that? Holy cow! I'm so gonna learn that,' and I did," she said.

She plans to continue working to get to higher levels, at least for the rest of high school.

Third-grader Adrienne Barnhart has been riding since kindergarten. She's a level 2, working on a level 3.

"You get to be with other kids; you get to ride and have a fun time," she said of why she likes being on the team.

Fourth-grader Erika Thorlton likes that "not too many people know how to do it."

The hardest part, she said, is "balance - keeping your bottom on the seat."

Tepper said the group will be holding a number of fund-raisers to try to raise the $4,000 per rider needed to take 24 riders to the national competition in Memphis, Tenn., and the world championships in Switzerland. Both contests will take place next summer. Anyone interested in donating or learning more about the fund-raisers can call North Bend Elementary at (425) 831-8384.

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