In 1991, Toni Munizza was a new teacher at Cathcart Elementary School with a secret. Unlike most people, she didn’t need four, three or even two wheels to get around. Munizza needed only one.
Growing up in Arlington, Munizza learned to ride a unicycle in the seventh grade.
At Washington State University in Pullman, she mostly forgot about unicycles.
But as a physical education teacher, watching students playing in the gym, Munizza remembered the joys of riding on one wheel.
Arms outstretched, balanced atop a single point, it’s like flying — the original “Look Ma, No Hands!” sport.
Munizza persuaded school officials to buy a half-dozen unicycles for the kids to ride during class. Within two years, more than two dozen fifth- and sixth-graders could circumnavigate the gym on one wheel.
But Munizza wasn’t satisfied with teaching kids how to cycle back and forth across the gym. She wanted them to whirl and glide over the floor like swing dancers, hop and jump like tightrope walkers.
One day around 1993, Munizza, who’d minored in coaching and dance in college, was hit by inspiration: “I can choreograph these kids!”
And so, the Cathcart Unicycle Club was formed. Some 28 years later, it’s still going strong. Unicycles have become a key part of the school’s identity. Four unicycles are featured in a mural that overlooks the playground. Munizza’s creation has made Cathcart, population 2,500, the unicycle capitol of the state, if not the nation.
Once the club got off the ground, before- and after-school practice ensued. In the meantime, Munizza filled notebooks with music counts and riding patterns as intricate as any football playbook, diagramming who rode where.
One of her former students, Travis Guion, 34, still recalls the drills.
“We spent many days after school learning the routines,” said Guion, an aircraft mechanic who lives in Oklahoma City and likes to impress his kids by barreling down the street on a unicycle. “We had to ride in between each other and do figure-eights. There was a lot of crashing into one another.”
Munizza wasn’t satisfied with choreographing routines and synchronizing them to music. She wanted the team decked out in style — sporting red, yellow and black tunics and tri-cornered jester hats.
For that, she called in her mom, Ruth Munizza.
“After I’d design a costume, my mom and I would work up the patterns,” Munizza said. Parents would later pitch in to help, but for that first show, “I do think my mom sewed the entire set of those jester costumes,” she said.
The club’s inaugural production was the grand finale of Cathcart’s 1994 Christmas program. The 25-member unicycle troupe performed three dances from the “Nutcracker” ballet.
One at a time, the Nutcracker “soldiers” pedaled out of a refrigerator box made to look like a Christmas present, and fanned across the gym, forming two spinning circles.
“I’ll never forget when my principal saw us,” Munizza said. “He just sat there with a dropped jaw because he couldn’t believe it!”
Munizza kept rolling out shows, choreographing one-wheel renditions of “Grease,” “Rock Around the Clock,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Shrek” and more.
Unicycling dates back to the 1870s as an adaptation of penny-farthing bicycles — the ones with the giant front wheels and tiny rear wheels. Riders discovered they could balance on the front wheel and dispense with the smaller wheel and handlebars. It wasn’t long before these trick riders and their unicycles ran away to join the circus.
“Once you get on that wheel, it becomes a gyroscope that doesn’t want to change its plane — it wants to spin in one direction,” said Dan Leers, 66, a retired science teacher at Cathcart who had a small role in “Grease.”
“It’s amazing what your brain is doing to quickly sense the imbalance and correct it using your feet and arms.”
Shannon Nichols, 31, a tattoo artist in Portland, Oregon, reveled in after-school practices. “We would serpentine through each other and do pinwheels — where you link arms and spin — and then we’d tie it all together,” said Nichols, whose older sister and brother also were in the club.
Come showtime, “The gym was always packed,” said Carmen Johnson, 31, a Mill Creek real estate agent whose skills earned her a starring role in “Grease.”
There was only one requirement to join the troupe: be able to ride the length of the gym.
“Some kids at Cathcart didn’t come from well-established homes, so being part of the team really built up their confidence and helped them come out of their shell,” said Heather Cloute, a retired Cathcart teacher who taught fifth and sixth grade. “This made them part of the group and gave them something to talk about.”
Parents and staff painted backdrops, helped sew costumes and drove the kids and their unicycles to performances as far away as Moses Lake.
For most of the 12 years Munizza taught at Cathcart Elementary School, she didn’t receive a stipend for running the club.
“I paid for most everything out of my own pocket, which is what teachers do,” Munizza said. “I wanted the kids to have the experience, and I loved doing it. The rewards were many, even if they weren’t monetary.”
By the early 2000s, the club was part of the halftime show at University of Washington basketball games.
Stephanie Sowers, 28, who now lives in Ireland, remembers performing during those UW basketball games. One of four Maltby sisters who learned to ride under Munizza’s tutelage, she became a top-tier unicyclist. Sowers’ skill earned her a seat on the “giraffe,” the towering unicycle that was sometimes “terrifying and exhilarating,” but was always a show-stopper, she said. She belonged to an elite circle, the 20% of team members who could ride backward.
The unicycle club was a one-wheel vehicle for kids to learn important life skills. Quiet kids found the limelight, cut-ups found a stage and shy kids found friends.
“Some of my really good riders were not the most gregarious kids, but just hard workers,” Munizza said.
If a rider fell during a show, she climbed back into the saddle and rejoined the troupe. “Parents could see what a huge life lesson that was,” Munizza said.
“It was a big piece of their elementary school life which, as we grow older, becomes smaller and smaller in the scale of things,” she said.
But for her former students, memories loom large.
Cathcart was a “bright spot in my youth that was very much due to her,” recalled Nichols, who has a tiny tattoo of a unicycle on her ribcage.
Sowers counts lifelong friends among her former teammates.
For Joy Fodge, a feisty grade-schooler who checked out a loaner unicycle on a Friday and learned to ride that weekend, the experience was a confidence-booster.
“It stays with you, not just the skill, but being part of a team,” said Fodge, 34, of Seattle. “It was just a very incredibly special time in my life.”
In 2002, Munizza transferred to Hidden River Middle School in Monroe and worked her magic there, though she noted that middle schoolers were a tougher crowd to impress. In 2007, she left Hidden River to teach in Seattle Public Schools.
Munizza, now 61 and retired, loaned her last unicycle a few years ago.
Last year, she finally got rid of most of the team’s costumes, donating them to charity.
“I had an entire walk-in closet designated for boxes and boxes of them,” she said. “Some of the costumes still have the kids’ names taped in them, which made me smile.”
Other items, she’ll keep — like the big poster board display, a patchwork of photographs and handbills from the shows, group shots of the unicycle club and fellow teachers, and a handwritten card that reads, “Thank you, Ms. Munizza.”
These days, Munizza, who lives in Seattle, gets around on a bright-red Vespa scooter.
“I traded in one wheel for two Italian wheels,” she said.
Gazing at photographs and newspaper clippings of the team spread across a coffee table, Munizza laughed when asked if she was the Johnny Appleseed of unicycles who taught a generation to ride.
“I hope so!” she said.
Herald writer Janice Podsada has been a unicycle rider since age 10.
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods
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