By Chris Hendrickson, Valley News
Most parents are probably used to their kids coming home from school and asking to play on the soccer or baseball team. But parents whose children attend Sultan Elementary School might get a different sort of request. Their kids may want to join the unicycle team.
Sultan Elementary School’s Cougars on Wheels unicycle club is currently 107 kids strong, which is about one fifth of the student body. The unicycle team is facilitated by first-grade teacher Dee Clarke and physical education instructor Bob Crichton who are both unicyclists themselves, and have been coaching the team since January of 2000. The team practices in the Sultan Elementary School gym three days per week.
“When Bob and I started we had, I think, five kids, and now we have over a hundred every year,” said Clarke.
After a child is able to ride across the gym unassisted, he or she can become a member of the team. At that point they are able to achieve different skill levels based on their ability to perform specific tasks that increase in number and in difficulty.
To become a Level One, the student must be able to mount the unicycle unassisted, ride 50 meters, and dismount gracefully with the unicycle in front of them. Once they have demonstrated these abilities to Clarke and Crichton, they are able to begin working towards becoming a Level Two, which includes additional skills.
The system, which includes levels one through 10, has been standardized by the Unicycling Society of America.
The kids are always working towards a goal and there are incentives along the way; as they rise in skill level, they become eligible to ride different types of unicycles.
Fifth-grade student Keely Venable has completed almost all of the tasks required to become a Level Three, at which point she’ll be able work towards becoming a Level Four.
“All I have to do is hop five times and that’s what I’ve been practicing,” said Venable. She also explained that, once she’s a Level Three, she becomes eligible to ride on a more challenging type of unicycle.
“Then I can ride a giraffe,” said Venable.
A giraffe is a tall-style unicycle that can be 12 feet tall or more.
She talks about the things she likes the best about being on the unicycle team.
“I think my favorite thing to do is ride on my stomach,” said Venable. “It’s pretty fun. I like to pretend that I’m flying.”
Venable rides seamlessly across the gym, demonstrating her preferred method of unicycle riding.
At Wednesday afternoon practice, the first hour of which is reserved for riders Level Two and up, the gym is full of whirling unicycles as kids happily race around on one wheel. Some kids are working on their skill levels, practicing specific tasks that will enable them to level up. Other kids simply ride. The thing they have in common is that they all seem to be having a great time.
The unicycle team meets throughout the school year, and they participate in many different events. They continue to practice a few weeks into the summer to help the team prepare for riding in Sultan’s annual Shindig parade which is held every year during the second weekend in July.
The semi-monthly events stay consistent throughout each school year and include team events in which the kids get to perform on their unicycles at assemblies and sports games, and also special events exclusive to the kids on the unicycle team. They get to ride their unicycles around Green Lake, have a sleepover in the school gym with a pancake breakfast, and participate in a jamboree that is usually held in June.
“Basically it’s like a track meet for unicycles,” said Clarke.
Except that everybody wins.
“We keep racing until everybody gets a ribbon,” said Clarke.
In May, 47 kids rode their unicycles around Green Lake and went to the Woodland Park Zoo afterwards.
How does the general public respond when they see 47 kids riding around Green Lake on unicycles? Extremely agape and curious! “They wonder if we’re with a circus,” laughs Clarke.
“They also marvel at how well-behaved they are,” said Crichton.
Throughout the school year, squabbles between kids and serious injury are both extremely rare occurrences.
“We have had very, very few of what I would consider major injuries,” said Crichton.
The team has had an enduring and positive effect on students and has inspired much loyalty from students and families alike. A family who has had four kids on the unicycle team volunteers each year to create the team’s special jamboree t-shirts, donating time and equipment. The unicycle team members wear the shirts at their summer jamboree.
And last year, two unicycle team students decided to forego their Christmas presents, instead utilizing the money to purchase a brand new “Corker” unicycle for the team. They presented the large-wheeled unicycle to Coaches Clarke and Crichton during the November Cougar Pride assembly.The unicycle team had been such a positive experience for them, they wanted to give something back, they said.
Clarke has found that many of the unicycle team members go on to become very adept at sports. She recently had a student’s father tell her that he feels that his son’s history on the unicycle team really helped him to be able to excel at football.
“They’re good athletes,” said Clarke.
The unicycle team is entirely self-supporting, and sells lollipops at school every Friday in an effort to raise money for the team. The money goes towards the purchase of t-shirts, unicycles, helmets and events such as the team’s yearly ride around Green Lake.Unicyclists can purchase t-shirts with the Sultan Unicycle Club logo for $10, and will gladly work with families who have financial difficulties.
Unicycle practice starts every September on the first day of school and is held three times a week throughout the entire year. After school lets out for the summer, practices are held twice a week up until the annual Sultan Summer Shindig ride.
Kids start out riding completely supported, either by Clarke and Crichton or by other students, as they make their way across the gym, getting a feel for the unicycle.
Some get it right away, and for some it takes months, even years, said Crichton.
Coaches Clarke and Crichton will help them for as long as it takes. The important thing is that they don’t give up, said Clarke.
There is a very specific technique involved in taking these young potential unicyclists across the gym. You have to support the rider without lifting them off the unicycle, explained Crichton and Clarke. They have both had a lot of practice.
“I don’t have tennis elbow, I have unicycle elbow,” said Clarke.
When children join the team, their families are asked to donate boxes of lollipops to help support the team.
Anyone wishing to help support the unicycle team with either funds or lollipops can do so by contacting Sultan Elementary School.
When Clarke first joined Crichton and began helping him coach the team, it was supposed to be a temporary position.
“And now I can never quit,” Clarke laughs cheerfully.