Unicycle Club teaches endurance

Marissa Quitevis practices balance on a unicycle.   - Seraine Page
Marissa Quitevis practices balance on a unicycle.
— image credit: Seraine Page

They teeter, they totter and they fall all over. But the students in the Unicycle Club at Cottonwood Elementary refuse to give up their balancing act.

Each week, three times a week, students of all levels gather in the gymnasium for unicycle lessons. Not all schools have a unicycle program, so other students will attend the after-school event, said Gail Smith, unicycle instructor and physical education teacher at Cottonwood.

“I have so many kids coming,” she said. “They need an hour to work on lots and lots of skills. Seeing the sparkle in their eyes and they get really good at something, I love that part.”

On a recent Wednesday, Smith separated the advanced and beginner students for some skill coaching. Smith has a regular volunteer, a former unicycling student of hers, who also helps out with the lessons.

In one room, Katy Perry’s “Roar” encouraged the beginners to keep trying. Inside, Smith instructed advanced level students to the beat of “Move it, Move it” as they flew past her, maneuvering about in circles and twisting about while holding another unicyclist’s hand.

Nate Collins, 9, careened around during a recent practice with fellow beginners. He started two months ago, and since then, he’s learned how to ride forward unassisted and to hold the hand of a buddy while performing a trick or two.

“I learned a lot of skills. Our P.E. teacher is the best,” he said. “It’s fun to learn and get to know new people and it’s a good thing to do. It’s really fun.”

Once the beginners and advanced levels have practiced a routine a few times, they mix all together again for free style where they can cycle around, try tricks like the “human teeter-totter” or bounce up and down over boards doing bunny hops.

To wrap up a lesson, students pedal out of the gym and circle the school before packing up their things to go home.

For Smith, a student’s willingness to get up and down on a unicycle numerous times after falling is an indicator to her of that child’s strength and future success. Like baby giraffes standing for the first time, early level unicyclists wobble as they try to sit upright on their bikes.

One student recently came to her first lesson after trying for a year and a half to get her three laps in. To Smith, that was the ultimate lesson in endurance.

In order to join, a student has to prove they are willing to give it a try — they must do three laps around the gym on the unicycle, Smith said. After that, most will purchase their own for home use to practice since they cannot take home the school unicycle.

“It takes about nine hours (of practice) for them to get across the gym (on their own),” she said.

Smith, who founded the club, learned from another teacher how to use a unicycle. Smith’s sons then wanted to learn, and in turn, the family began unicycling. That’s when Smith decided a club was necessary for the school. With fund-raising efforts and local grants, she was able to purchase unicycles for club activities.

“If they’re struggling academically, they shine someplace else,” said Smith. “This is one place they can shine.”

Faith Harer, a sixth grader, has been at it for three years. A friend of hers joined and she decided it sounded like a good time.

“I thought it would be fun, and I like it now,” the 12-year-old said. “I always look forward to it.”

Harer is also a brave participant in the “human teeter-totter” trick during the club’s freestyle time. She lies flat on her back while a wooden board is place on her stomach. With the help of two others, a light-weight unicyclist will roll over the board.

It’s one of her favorite tricks, along with bunny hops. While those tricks are fun for participants, from an educational side, Smith sees the repetitive practice as something much more.

“They learn balance and eye tracking — all of those things track back to academics,” she said. “The idea is to reach kids in a variety of ways so they enjoy coming to school.”

If participation is any indicator, students are enjoying school and the extracurriculars that come with it. Since Smith founded it 10 years ago, participation has increased from to 120 students in Whaling Days, the club’s final public show.

It’s popularity can also be judged by some of her students who have stuck around for years, like Kaya McGill.

While in second grade, McGill picked up a unicycle and hasn’t looked back since. Now, as a sixth grader, she can ride a “three-stack” which is a three-tiered unicycle that requires her to climb a wall ladder to hop on it.

Levels range from one through eight, with Smith’s top rider in a level seven category. Students on level one can ride unassisted for 50 meters and “dismount gracefully.” Level eight students can demonstrate eight different mounts, ride one footed and complete backward spins among other tricks.

Ultimately, each session is a practice of skills and a routine that will be used in the Whaling Days parade. Each year the students participate to show off their skills, Smith said. They also show off their “stars” and backward rolls in school shows and performance nights for parents.

For those interested in volunteering with the Unicycle Club, contact Gail Smith at


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