Where’s your other wheel?

February 7, 2015

A navy blue station wagon pulls up in the parking lot at dusk. Its headlights illuminate a girl riding a unicycle. She spins, glides, and jumps off curbs beneath the halo of a streetlight.

“We just want to watch. Do you mind?” the driver asks, a dad with his two young daughters in the backseat. The little girls stare, mesmerized, and melt into giggles.

The unicyclist smiles modestly. This is nothing new for her. The unicyclist is Rachel Bloom, a seventh grader at Renfroe Middle School. At Circus Camp in Decatur, the minimum age for learning to unicycle is eight. Rachel learned to ride at age seven.

“They said I wasn’t old enough, so I went home, asked for a unicycle for my birthday, and taught myself how to ride,” Rachel said.”

— Rachel Bloom

“That’s all you need to do with Rachel, is tell her she can’t do something,” Paula Bloom said of her daughter.

“She went back to Circus Camp that next June and was like, ‘In your face, look. I know how to ride.’” Rachel left Circus Camp that summer, but her love for unicycling took off. “I was so entertained with the learning process that I never really thought of giving up,” Rachel said.

“I saw my slow progression so I [thought,] ok, I will get this.” Jim Sowers, an adult unicyclist, shares Rachel’s mindset. In addition to being a lawyer and a DJ, Sowers is a board member of the International Unicycling Federation.

Sowers encourages young unicyclists to embrace their talent as something that separates them from the crowd. Unicycling, he says, requires more than one wheel and a helmet.

“In order to be a good unicyclist, you have to be persistent and not care what other people think,” Sowers said.

Rachel learned this lesson from the reactions to her unicycle. “She’s had times where other kids have judged her. She’s gotten, ‘Oh you’re weird,’ Paula said.“I think it’s taught her to be like, ‘Yeah, and what’s your point?,’ because it’s something she loves.”

Sixth graders Evan Beach and Graham Every and seventh grader Guinness Nelms also receive raised eyebrows when unicycling. On the way to Renfroe one morning, two eighth graders told Beach and Nelms that unicycling to school is “just plain weird.”

“People look at you differently,” Nelms said. “When I’m riding at school, people will just stare at us.””

— Guinness Nelms

The boys agree that unicycling sets them apart in a good way, and aren’t phased by unencouraging reactions.

As Beach said, “haters gonna hate.” For them, the usual modes of transportation are a little too predictable.

“I wanted to do it because I didn’t want to be like other people riding their bikes or their little razor scooters,” Nelms said. “We’re totally against razor scooters,” Every added.

Every learned how to unicycle before Nelms and Beach, and marked his mastery with a triumphant ride. He pumped his unicycle down the street and swatted at the basketball net in his friend’s driveway.

Soon after, Beach received his own unicycle and tried to tackle the same ride.

“I tried once and I couldn’t do it,” Beach said. “I kept trying, and trying and trying, and then I did it one time, and I got it and I felt so accomplished that I started dancing in the yard.”

Because of unicycling, Beach feels “rewarded” every time he sees someone on a bike.

“I actually know how to do something that they don’t know how to do,” he said.

While riding through town on a unicycle has its perks, Nelms and Every plan to take their unicycling beyond an interest.

“Me and Guinness are going to ride the Appalachian trail, and we’re going to get gear unicycles and everything,” Every said. “There are handlebar unicycles, and they have gears on them, and brakes too.”

Although the boys unicycle in hopes of progressing their hobby, Rachel unicycles for pleasure, not a profession.

“I want to be a general surgeon,” she said. “People usually say, ‘Oh, are you going to join the circus?’” Paula said. “I usually say, ‘Sure! She can join the circus after grad school.’”

One of Paula’s colleagues saw Rachel zooming down the sidewalk on her unicycle one morning, and wrote a poem about the sight titled “Girl on a Unicycle.”

This kind of inspiration is what Paula finds notable.

“It inspires people…It’s such a powerful thing,” Paula said. “I think it’s the sort of unexpectedness of it. It’s sort of jarring and a reminder of whimsy.”

Rachel prompts poems, dropped jaws and wide eyes that crinkle into excited laughter, like the two girls giggling in the back seat of the station wagon.

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