Unicycle club's mantra: Play, practice and don't look down

Dec 27 2011 - 9:43am

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DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD/St. Petersburg Times
Troy Broadbent (second from left), 17, leads a line of unicycle students around Oldsmar Elementary School's basketball courts during a bi-monthly meeting of the school's unicycle club in Oldsmar, Fla.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD/St. Petersburg Times
Troy Broadbent (second from left), 17, leads a line of unicycle students around Oldsmar Elementary School's basketball courts during a bi-monthly meeting of the school's unicycle club in Oldsmar, Fla.

About 50 years ago, a boy spied a unicycle tossed to the curb and decided to roll it home. The boy's father wasn't pleased when he saw it. Its bearings were bent out of shape. Its pedals scraped the floor.

But the father, being a good dad and somewhat mechanically inclined, set about repairing it for his son. The boy did not know then how it would inspire an entire school community.

The boy spent hours in the basement of his home practicing, 15 minutes at a time.

He'd balance on the seat, grab the low-hanging steel beams above him for stability and pedal himself from one side of the basement to the other.

By month's end, the boy had mastered the ride.

He was a unicyclist -- and the only third-grader anyone knew who rode on one wheel.

Years passed and the boy became a teenager.

And the unicycle was less cool.

The boy enrolled in college, got a degree and became a teacher.

One day in the teachers' lounge at Leila Davis Elementary in Clearwater, Fla., he mentioned his unicycle riding.

Another teacher heard and told him he should ride for the kids.

So he did.

"Be good for a month during lunch," the teacher told his students, "and I will ride my unicycle for you."

So, the children were good and when the 6-foot-7 teacher climbed on the seat of his chrome unicycle -- the same one he'd bought as a child -- the kids cheered and laughed and smiled.

"They went NUTS over it," he recalls.

In 1996, a year after he was named principal at Oldsmar Elementary, Dave Schmitt started something.

He called it the unicycle club.

The children zip and wobble. They hold hands and laugh.

First-graders get pointers from fifth-graders about how to keep steady and avoid falling. About 25 kids are in the group now, but the club has gotten as large as 60.

"Look up! Up!" Christina Schmitt, 9, (no relation) tells an unsteady 6-year-old as he holds her hand and pedals. His unicycle stands no higher than an adult's kneecap.

Little Ian Kirane nods and falls. Then he hoists his unicycle up again and grabs Christina's hand.

The lessons of unicycle club are simple: Play, practice, laugh and don't look down.

Kids pedal, fall and get cheered anyway. Sometimes, the club gets to perform on the school stage during lunch and the kids feel like celebrities.

Out here, no one's tapping on cellphones.

There are just big kids and little kids. Helmets and knee pads. Unicycles and Schmitt.

In 15 years, Schmitt's club has created a cross-generational community of one-wheeled enthusiasts.

Big kids graduate to bigger unicycles and donate their small ones back to the club. Children write messages to compete for the prizes.

Kylie Steele, 7, won one that way. "I would ride it every day," her essay promised.

Now she calls to her uncle for help. "Lean into it," Kyle Doege, 23, tells Kylie, as she teeters atop her saddle.

Doege also learned how to ride his unicycle on this blacktop when he was a second-grader.

Now a lanky engineering student at the University of South Florida, Doege still shows up every now and then to ride, to play, to chase, to tag, and now, to teach his niece.

No one's sure what will become of the unicycle club next year when principal Schmitt plans to retire to North Georgia.

"I'm hoping that someone steps up," says Schmitt.

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