Every Wednesday night at a gym in Warrenton, Va., 23 kids, ages 9 to 16, gather to practice. But they don't have a basketball. They're not making layups or running sprints. They're doing something a lot more unusual than that.
They're riding unicycles, which are bikes with one wheel and no handlebars. ("Uni" means one.)
"Ride in a line and then split off," shouted Linda McLaughlin, who coaches the group, called the UniStars Unicycle Showtroupe, at a recent practice as the kids made two lines and then rode the length of the gym.
The group performs at about a dozen events a year, including parades and charity events. On Saturday, the UniStars will ride in the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade in Washington for the eighth time. It will take the group less than an hour to pedal the 10 blocks up Constitution Avenue, past the museums and watching families, but it has taken the kids countless hours of practice to get to this point.
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Riding a unicycle, like riding a two-wheel bike, is all about "balance, confidence and determination," said Michelle Carrico, who helps coach the UniStars. New riders use the gym wall for balance. First they face the wall and sit on the unicycle with the palms of their hands on the wall. Then they ride alongside the wall, using it to help them stay on the cycle. Once they master that, the riders start pushing away from the wall and learning how to turn by using their hips to steer.
"I wasn't that good at first," said Virginia Lawrence, 12, who has been cycling for about six years. "But then I just got better."
Carrico's three rules for the unicyclists are eyes forward, back straight and keep your bottom on the seat.
"It was frustrating at first because everyone else made it look so easy," said Gabby Macari, 13, has been riding for four years.
Matt McLaughlin, 9, is the youngest rider in the group. He started riding a couple of years ago. His older sister, Abby, helped start the UniStars with Linda, her mom and coach, in 2005 when she was 11 years old. "I thought it was cool, so I wanted to ride," said Matt. He mounts — or gets on the cycle — by putting the seat between his legs and then stepping on one of the pedals. "I caught on quicker than a lot of people," he said. "I never got frustrated." It took him only a couple days to learn, he said. (Wow!)
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As the group rides up the parade route on Saturday, wearing black pants and lime green UniStars shirts, the riders will pause at times to perform tricks. They will ride in circles, in lines, in figure eights and even in what they call a pinwheel, which is when two groups of cyclists form "X" shapes and the rest of the team makes a big circle around them.
"I don't really get nervous," said Matt, who will ride in his second Cherry Blossom parade this weekend. "It's an awesome feeling. I just like being in front of crowds."
This is Gabby Macari's first time in the Cherry Blossom Parade. "I'm really excited to be able to do something so big and known," she said. "I'm always nervous, but you kind of get over it when you're having so much fun."