Panther pride is cat's meow at nationals

NORTH BEND — What has one wheel and is filled with pride? A

Panther Pride Demo Team unicycle rider, of course.

The Pride team recently returned from the National Unicycle

Convention with much to be proud of; 250 first- through fifth-place honors and

a sense of accomplishment.

"I just was so happy, I was about to explode," said Shila Hodgins,

8, who won nine first-place awards in her age group for track and a first in

the artistic category. "It was pretty fun to get a trophy and I'm glad I got one."

Team members are Valley residents who range in age from 4 to

15 and ride unicycles anywhere from 2 to 12 feet tall. At the convention,

they competed in two categories; track and field and artistic events.

"The artistic side of unicycling is like ice skating, because it flows.

The routines are to music and there are individual, pair and group

routines," coach Alan Tepper said. "The

other side is track events and mountain cycling."

Of the approximately 12 teams that competed last month, the

Pride won the most honors. The competition was held July 19-24 in

Adrian, Mich., near Detroit.

And 120 of those were first-place honors.

In addition, 10 national records were set, including one by Jesse

Berg, who completed the 400-meter race in 1:07.51 minutes.

When not competing, the unicycle team performs year-round at

parades, events and sports teams' half-time shows. The 96 riders are coached

by Tepper, who teaches physical education at North Bend Elementary. Of

all the members, 46 elected to go to July's competition.

Tepper is pleased with the team's accomplishments.

"Every kid came away with an honor," he said. " I think the most

important thing is, they came away with pride and satisfaction. They gave a

lot of themselves and their time, and the parents were a tremendous help."

He explained that besides winning events, most of the kids made

friends and learned new tips from others at the convention.

"It's not a cut-throat event. Everybody gets to know everybody else,

and the atmosphere is that you can walk up to champions and ask them to

teach you their techniques," he said.

Tepper is from Brooklyn, N.Y., and has taught some form of

physical education for 32 years, including gymnastics. He started the team in

1982 as a circus arts group, but as time went by, the members' interest

gravitated toward the unicycles.

The Pride is always accepting new members.

"I would encourage other children to participate, and I think every

child is coordinated enough to participate. It just takes time to learn how to

ride," said Cindy Hodgins, Shila's mother.

On average, it can take a child anywhere from two weeks to a year

to learn the basics of riding a unicycle.

"Someone once asked me what it takes to ride a unicycle, and my

answer is; `Wanting to.'" Tepper said, adding that a few of his students

were so excited about unicycles, they learned to ride them before

hopping on a bicycle.

He explained that riding has side benefits, including; developing

balance, overall body conditioning, confidence and poise.

"If one of the goals of the (Snoqualmie Valley) school district

is to prepare children for the future, then this is preparation," he said. "As

they go through life they need to learn how to prioritize, set goals, time lines

and schedule their time for success."

Team members practice an average of two to three times per

week, and for many of the students, the practice is in addition to other sports

and activities.

Parents don't seem to mind the year-round commitment.

"The favorite part for me is that unlike other sports, the children on

the team range from age 4, to high-school kids. And that's been a great gift

for Shila because they're all like a big family," Cindy Hodgins said.

"The (older children) just take care of the little guys, like they're little sisters

and brothers. It really helps their self-esteem when you've got the big

kids cheering for you."

Her daughter also encourages others to join.

"When you get good, you'll be happy," Shila Hodgins said. "So try

it, and if you don't like it, you don't have to do it. But I'd say it's pretty fun."

And will these children take the sport into adulthood?

Tepper said he hopes so.

"Unicycling really is a lifetime sport," he added.

In 2002, the team will host the national competition here in the

Valley and hopes to have the world championships at the same time.

This month, the team will be in the Alpine Days parade, and in October it

will host Washington Unicycle Records Day.

If you would like to join the Panther Pride Demo Team, call (425)

831-8400 and leave a message for Coach Tepper.

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