Unicyclists rolling at championships, convention in Butler County

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They competed, they danced and, on occasion, they fell -- but that's just a UPD or "Unplanned Dismount." It's a unicycle acronym, and is used often at the North American Unicycling Championships and Convention, an all-volunteer event, currently being hosted by the Butler Wobble, a unicycling club based in the Butler area.

Drawing at least 250 attendees from 28 states, in addition to Canada, New Zealand and Australia, this year marks the national convention's 40th anniversary, and the first time it has come to Pennsylvania.

Held at the Seneca Valley school main campus and Moraine State Park, the convention began Sunday and will last through Saturday.

Events, open to all ages and skill levels, are varied, from a full 26.2-mile marathon to unicycle hockey, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Monday afternoon, beneath a foggy sky, George Carra, 42, from Melbourne, Australia, took a break between hockey matches to adjust his seat.

"My team just won 3-1," he said, dabbing sweat from his face. "And I was playing with people I've never heard of or seen before in my life."

A veteran of the circus, Mr. Carra ranked ninth in the world for the 10-kilometer race at UNICON, the bi-annual World Unicycling Convention and Championships. He hopes to build his endurance by practicing here at an altitude much higher than that of his native Melbourne. He wants the practice. After all, next year's world championships, to be held in Montreal July-August 2014, are a little more than a year away.

"One guy I competed against yesterday said he trained in Peru," he said, referencing Monday's 10-kilometer race. "He said he didn't have to breathe three times. I'm a bit upset about that."

He finds unicycling "more interesting" than his previous days as a tightrope walker in the circus.

"[A unicycle is] portable," he said. "I can play hockey and basketball on it, and on a larger one, I can ride it to work."

As a mechanic in a bicycle shop, Mr. Carra said he never rides bikes, only unicycles because "bikes are boring," he said.

The sport of unicycling has been "growing rapidly all over the USA," Hans Mills, treasurer of the Unicycling Society of America, said in an e-mail. He added that different unicycling styles reflect different regions of the country. Mr. Mills said the Great Lakes-area unicycle clubs specialize in artistic riding and group performances, while West Coast teams do more mountain unicycling, known as MUNI.

Katie Holden, 21, of Redford, Mich., is volunteering as a judge in the freestyle events, which are similar to individual and pairs figure skating, where riders perform routines set to music.

According to Ms. Holden, if you've come all the way to the national competition, you're likely competing in multiple events. That is, unless you do trials, street events where riders must navigate obstacles.

"[Trials] are more like X Games stuff," she said. "They're more in their own world."

Scott Wilton, 20, and Patricia Wilton, 19, both of Madison, Wis., performed together in the freestyle pairs category. Using their background in swing dance and ballet, the duo applies these skills to their unicycling -- like ballroom dancing on wheels.

As with most competitions involving showmanship, points are deducted for mistakes. The goal, Mr. and Ms. Wilton said, is to do the most advanced tricks within your capacity while keeping time to the music. And they try to keep moving, to avoid an unplanned dismount, which gets points deducted.

"I'm always thinking, 'Smile, don't fall. Smile, don't fall,' " Ms. Wilton laughed.

Between events, riders greeted each other with smiles and pats on the back. Parents tended to children. Teenagers, looking ready for a BMX bike competition, compared tricks. While the national convention may be a family vacation for some, for others it's a long-awaited opportunity to showcase their skills.

"Coming here I can tell I have a lot more work to do," said Cassie Allen, 22, of North Strabane, who practices with the Wonders Unicycle Club in Eighty Four. "This is the best of the best."

Lisa Krack, 40, of Butler, co-founded the Butler Wobble with her husband, Dave, and helped to organize the convention. She said those in attendance were roughly split between "first-timers and old-timers." But mostly, she noticed friends and fellow riders she's met at previous conventions.

"It's kind of like a reunion," she said.

For more information about the North American Unicycling Championships and Convention: www.UniNationals2013.com.

region - neigh_north

Jacob Axelrad: jaxelrad@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634. On Twitter: @jakeaxelrad.


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