By Ivanna Ellis
Gwin Elementary School in Hoover has a sport that usually only a circus can claim: unicycling.
Coached by physical education teacher Robin McMahan, the school’s unicycling team consists of about 25 students in grades 3-5. The team performed at different sporting events around Alabama three times last year and has already performed at one event this year.
“When I started my job six years ago, I said, ‘I have no idea how to ride [a unicycle],’” Robin said, laughing, “But I quickly learned how to teach it. Now we travel to do performances. We’ve been to Samford University, the University of Alabama and a lot of the local high schools.”
According to Robin, the unicycle program started before she began teaching at the school. She said it was initiated by Janice Sharpe, the P.E. teacher Robin replaced after Sharpe retired.
Since Robin has taken the reins, with the help of fellow P.E. teacher Tammy Propst, the school has purchased more unicycles (at about $100 each), the number of team members has grown and the team has added more performances to its agenda.
Many of the children on the team found out about the program from their older siblings who attended Gwin and were on the team, they said.
“My older sister was on the unicycle team, and I wanted to do the performances like she got to do,” said Lexi McGrew, a fourth-grader.
Roderick Linsey, also a fourth-grader, said he joined the team for the challenge and had a point to prove.
“My brother knows how to ride, but he wasn’t on the team. So when I said I wanted to be on the team, he didn’t think I could, but I showed him I can,” Roderick said.
Eligibility for the unicycle team starts in the third grade for the students, and then the step-by-step process to actually make the team begins. It’s the first time many of the students have tried out for a team, Robin said.
First they have to learn in P.E. how to ride a pedalo, a small, three-wheeled contraption that requires balance to pedal while standing, Robin said.
“Once they pass that, then they start learning how to ride a unicycle during P.E. and before school,” she said. “Some students even got their own unicycles so they can practice at home. Once they get the hang of it, they have to be able to ride the unicycle twice around the gym to make the team. Once they’re on the team, they start learning all the skills.”
The kids learn to master the unicycle at different paces, Robin said.
“It usually takes (the students) from the third to the fourth grade to learn how to ride the pedalo, but sometimes I have kids that learn it, like, the first week. It really just depends on the child. Some pick it up really quickly and some take longer. Either way, it takes a lot of practice,” she said.
Fourth-grader Jeremy Glass said he wanted to be on the team because “it sounded fun and it teaches you balance.”
Experienced rider Cooper Prince, a fifth-grader, said he joined the team after he saw the older kids riding the unicycles.
“It looked fun, so I wanted to do it and go to different places and show them that we can do it,” Cooper said.
Besides helping students gain a skill few others have, the unicycle program at Gwin has many other benefits for the team members, Robin said. On top of the list: giving the students a challenge.
“It takes them out of their comfort zone and gives them something to get them excited about. Once they make the team, they get to perform in front of a crowd and get comfortable with that. Plus, it really is a good workout riding the unicycle,” Robin said.
Another veteran rider, fifth-grader Vann Storch, continues to challenge himself by riding the tallest unicycle that the school has.
“At first I was scared I was going to fall trying to get off of it, but I haven’t fallen yet,” said Vann.
Vann said he loves the unicycles because “you can do a little bit more on the unicycles than you can on a bike because it’s lighter. You can do fun things like shoot baskets while you ride. I’m learning how to juggle on it now.”
At events, the team puts on a full show, riding around the gym court twirling flags, riding in a circle while holding a parachute in the middle, shooting basketballs into the net–and actually making the shots. One rider can even spin a basketball on his finger while riding.
“Usually, when the crowd gets excited and starts cheering for them, that really gets them excited,” said Robin.
Despite its unusual nature, unicycling is perfectly unique to Gwin.
“I just think it’s different, and the kids love it. I think I’ve heard of a school in Tuscaloosa that has unicycles, but I haven’t heard of anywhere else around here that has them,” said Robin.
What’s next for the team?
“Between me and (the kids), we’re always thinking of new skills for them to work on,” said Robin. “Every year I try to let them take control of it and let them come up with new skills that they want to do. So we’re just going to keep doing the performances and keep growing.”