Two things I have never thought about together.
A fast-paced game that involves people belting into each other at high speed; and a form of transportation – that I thought – was reserved only for clowns and people who do crazy parkour videos on YouTube.
“It’s like ice hockey, but you take away the ice and add a unicycle. Usually [there’s] a lot of confusion, kind of putting two ideas together that don’t seem to make sense together. But once you see it, I think it makes sense.”Steph Schultz, UC student and unicycle hockey player
I play a variation of hockey that I have described similarly, being a mixture of ice-hockey and indoor hockey. So, I’m no stranger to unknown and slightly strange variations of hockey, however, my first thought was; who would be crazy enough to do this?
I met with a group of people, including Steph, who play this sport in the ACT through the ACT Unicycle Riders Society. I contacted the organiser of the group, Mike, who was very keen for me to come and see them in their element.
Whilst on the phone to me, Mike asked what my height was.
“About 170cm,” I told him.
“Great,” he said. “I’ll bring one of my wife’s unicycles for you.”
My thoughts going into the night were, that in terms of combining hockey and unicycling, I had the hockey part down pat. All I needed to learn was to unicycle… easy right?
I started trying to get onto a unicycle with the aid of a ladder that was screwed to the wall for little kids to climb in P.E.
I would use one hand to hold the ladder while the other flailed about gracelessly, trying to keep my balance.
Other members of the group were trickling into the hall and starting to do laps around the centre.
As when I was 6 and learning to ice-skate, my one and only goal was to progress fast enough to move to the centre of the rink with all the big kids.
My aim was to meet them there by the end of the night.
While I was trying to learn how to unicycle, I spoke to a few of the people involved about how unicycle hockey is played.
Essentially, there are five people on either team (usually). Players ride a unicycle and use an ice-hockey stick to control what they call a dead tennis ball (which is a heavy tennis ball used to reduce the bounce).
Later in the night, when they played a mock game, people were falling off their unicycles or bumping each other off by accident.
“If you’re not falling you’re not trying hard enough,” Steph Schultz tells me.
Usually unicycle hockey is played with nets, however, the goals that the group use were made by one of the members and leaders, Mike.
The reason they use them, he explained, was so that you could hear a satisfying ‘thunk’ when a goal was scored, reassuring you that you hadn’t missed.
One thing I found out was that the members of unicycle hockey are more diverse in their engagement with unicycling, and are not just one-trick-ponies.
Many of the members do other forms of unicycling activities, with hockey being just one of the activities in the community.
Greg Terrill is one of the group members I spoke to that night who went to the Unicon 20 (unicycle convention) in July 2022, which was based in Grenoble, France.
“In principle, every two years there’s a world unicycling convention – like the world champs type stuff – it was delayed because of Covid,” he says.
Unicycle hockey is only one aspect of a large number of activites that people do on a unicycle. Unicon hosts many other events that Greg also got to participate in.
“The main one [event] I did was a road race, it was 15km and 1000 vertical metres uphill.
“That was kind of hard work.”
He also spoke about the experience watching the events that were similar to skateboarding and bmx styles.
“Part of what’s really compelling is, you know, when you watch people doing things and they’re so obviously really really highly skilled, a lot of it came across as exactly that, just so skilled – and that was fun, that was really fun to watch”
Speaking from my experience on the night, and learning just how hard it is to ride a unicycle, it is incredibly impressive what the members of this group can do.
Whilst I was holding onto Steph and Mike’s hands, one of the young members started riding his unicycle with only one foot around the centre of the hall.
One question I had for Greg and many of the other group members, was how do you get into the unicycling scene?
Greg has only been unicycling for around two years and was introduced through his kids and free time in the lockdown periods.
“The kids had done a circus summer holiday type course [so] we bought a unicycle for them,” he explains.
“When it came to lockdown there was so much time, and there was a unicycle there, and I thought right, I’ve wanted to do this for ages so now is the time.”
Steph’s family used to go one bike-rides, where her father saw that she had a knack for a particular skill.
“I learnt to do no handers, and my dad was like, ‘you should level it up’.”
She got a unicycle for her birthday when she was 12 and has been riding ever since.
Steph came to study at UC, when she found out about the unicycle group and unicycle hockey in Canberra.
“It was something I wanted to do for a long time, but in a regional area there’s no unicycle hockey.”
Steph plays two times a week with the unicycling community in Canberra.
“It’s good to get together each week and ride with other people.”
Wednesday nights at Campbell High School, as I had found, is where the group comes to do what they would like to with new skills and a casual hockey game.
“Wednesday unicycling is a really great place to learn, everyone is welcome, and we always love new people coming along to learn. There’s always a couple of spare wheels for people to borrow, and a couple of hands to hold onto to balance as you go along.”Greg Terrill, ACT Unicycle Riders Society
By the end of the night I had managed to go about four cycles without holding onto anything before falling.
From that night I also managed to find a group of welcoming and enthusiastic people who want to come together to do what they love, and teach others along the way.
Photos by Amy Briggs