Young Jewish Unicycling Stars

November 25, 2011, Judd

Once relegated to sideshow circus juggling routines with performers sporting whimsical top hats and dressed in clown regalia, unicycling is evolving into a mainstream – and extreme – sport.

Mountain unicycle riding, or “muni,” as it’s better known in the one-wheeled circuit, is especially gaining popularity. Over the last 20 years or so, many genres of the sport have emerged. Think street (skateboarding, but with a unicycle), trials (obstacle course) and freestyle.

The sport is especially popular in Israel. About 1,000 Israelis belong to the Israel Unicycling Society. Nimrod Nir, the 27-year-old manager and coach of the organization, brought with him to the 2008 Unicycling Championships (Unicon) in Denmark this past summer a contingent of 15 Israeli riders between the ages of 6 and 15.

Nir said unicycling has received mainstream press in Israel.

“All four of the major newspapers, as well as the two main TV news channels in Israel, covered us,” he said.

In an effort to attract younger generations to the sport, the organization runs after-school programs across Israel. These programs teach kids the benefits of unicycling – to promote “balance between the physical and the mental and to also sharpen concentration skills,” Nir said.

In San Diego, unicycling has caught on with quite a few Jewish teenagers. but two have really excelled at the sport.

Miles Ornish, a 14-year-old sophomore at La Jolla Country Day School, started unicycling at age 11, when his cousin shipped him an old unicycle. He quickly learned to transfer the skateboarding skills he already had to the unicycle. Now, he’s organizing and planning to ride in the 14th annual California Mountain Unicycling Weekend (CMUW), October 17-19. Ornish, also a member of the San Diego Unicycle Society, expects around 75 riders to come from as far away as Canada to compete. So far, Ornish has spread word about CMUW through the Internet. He’s also securing camping space in San Diego’s East County for the riders, who will be competing for three clays in trail riding, jumping from boulder to boulder down mountain paths.

To date, Ornish has secured Elfin Forest in North County, Poway’s Iron Mountain and Noble Canyon, near Pine Valley, for muni competitions.

Because he’s become so involved – and skilled – at the sport, Ornish enjoys a major perk in school.

“I don’t have to take phys ed,” he said, adding that he appreciates not having to play badminton or wear school gym clothes. Ornish, who also helps translate a French unicycling magazine into English , has the green light from La Jolla Country Day to unicycle every day for his independent physical education class.

“Because I’m so good at my sport. I can take independent P.E., but the school won’t let me ride around campus – I guess they’re scared I’ll break my arm or something,” he said, hopping on one of his unicycles at his family’s home near Mt. Helix.

At the 2006 CMUW at Lake Tahoe, 12-yearold Ornish competed in his first contest. Entering in the novice division, he won by a large margin in the trials contest.

Last year, at CMUW in Santa Cruz, Ornish entered the advanced category and tied for first. He lost a tie-breaker, but said the outcome speaks volumes to the sport’s evolving maturity.

“The tie-breaker was a tug-of-war contest. I weigh 85 pounds and lost to a guy that’s 175 pounds,” Ornish said.

Some parents might cringe at their child bouncing on a unicycle from boulder to boulder, one hand gripping the seat, the other in the air like a rodeo cowboy’s.

Fortunately for Ornish, his parents fully support his hobby. They have accompanied him to all of his competitions, including Unicon, and his mother Marty attends many of his trial rides.

“When Miles first started riding, I wasn’t going to let my 11-year-old son go to mountain trails by himself,” Marty said. “Plus, l was waiting for years to have someone in my family I could go hiking with.”

Compared to mountain bikers, who can reach speeds of more than 30 miles per hour, unicycists on mountain trails move at only about 7 miles per hour, due to the technical precision necessary for hopping between boulders.

“That’s a good thing that it’s slower than mountain biking,” Marty said. “There are much less serious injuries, and the nice thing for me is, I can keep up with Miles and his friends on the trail while I’m hiking.”

“A couple of years ago, after his first unicycling trail ride , Ornish wanted to attend the Moab Muni Festival in Moab, Utah. Many enthusiasts consider the city the mountain-biking capital of the world.

“Going to Moab was the best thing I could have clone, because it really kick-started my path into trail riding,” Ornish said.

Ornish has been fortunate in another way during his years unicycling – he’s been able to share the fun of the sport with his friend Jason Hull, another local Jewish teen. Hull, a junior at Patrick Henry High School, met Ornish through the San Diego Unicycle Society and also excels at the burgeoning sport.

Hull first learned to ride a unicycle two years ago after other adventurous Jewish teens exposed him to it.

“When I went to Temple Emanu El’s High School for Jewish Studies Program, I saw a couple of guys bust out their unis during class break, riding around the courtyard,’ Hull recalled. Now, he can ride intimidating trails as well as entertain on a unicycle the oldfashioned way – juggling.

“I got into juggling before unicycling,” Hull said. “I learned how to ride by myself, constantly practicing in the backyard. In all, it probably took me a clay and a half to learn, and I’ve been going non-stop since then.”

Hull said he’s also used his skill to earn money at the Lemon Festival in Chula Vista and the International Sand Castle Building Tournament in Imperial Beach – by distributing bottled water to parched festival-goers while atop his unicycle.

Even though muni riding has existed since the mid-1980s, and participation in unicycling is growing every year – more than 1,500 people participated in Unicon 2008- Ornish thinks the sport is still a long way from overcoming its circus connection.

“I guess a lot of the public might think unicycling is silly,” Ornish said, showing off one of his newer unicycles, his sixth. “But if you think about the efficiency of a unicycle, it makes so much sense. Why walk when you can unicycle? It’s much faster and more fun and is a great total-body workout. If you think about it that way, walking seems a little silly.”

For more information on the California Mountain Unicycle Weekend, visit www.unicycling.com/muni/2008. Videos of Miles Ornish mountain unicycling are available at www.youtube.com.

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.