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St. Helens Unicycles Making a Come Back

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In days gone by, St. Helens Unicycle Drill Team was known for putting Newbury, Ohio on the map and they were the highlight in many parades all over the country.  The group traveled all over the United States performing in Richard Nixon’s and Jimmy Carter’s inaugural parades, Orange Bowl half-time, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and even at the Cotton Bowl. They were one of the most watched parade entries, besides the large balloons in the New York parades.

They were famous. They were seen on television shows like Good Morning America, Real People, Big Blue Marble, PM Magazine, To Tell the Truth and ASAHI Japanese Television. They had arrived, so to speak.

The unicycle team did more than just ride; they did many stunts as well. They would do ramp jumps over people, play football on the high rise ones, jump rope on a unicycle and do some juggling. They also did some choreographed riding and even  did some stunts with a basketball. Back in the day, they might hold a bar on the shoulders of the riders of two moving unicycles and have someone doing basic acrobatic moves, like hanging upside down on the bar while riding. They were very talented and were often sought out for parades and events.

The current team is young. Many of the riders have only been riding for a few months but have the drive and potential to develop into solid cyclists in time. They claim it takes 10 -15 hours to learn to ride a unicycle and longer to master the basic skills like step-mounting, and rocking. Both skills are needed to ride well. This team is not yet to the caliber of the team of yesterday, but they will get there. The team from the 1980’s had mastered 12.5 feet tall cycles and some could ride the 23 feet tall units, while today’s team highest is  9 feet. In the meantime, they keep practicing to advance their skill level.

A trip to visit the team at practice was enlightening. Some of the parents there were riders of the 1970’s. They shared memories they had, like traveling around the country and seeing things they never would have gotten to see. The long- time friendships were discussed as well as building teamwork skills and discipline. Nancy Newport Winters said she loved it and helps train the new members, along with the other parents of the young riders.

It all began in 1965, when the parish’s priest, Rev. James J. Moran aka Father Moran   purchased a single unicycle for physical education class. Every student who went through the school had to be able to ride a unicycle around the gymnasium at least once. The skill caught on and the children began riding them in parades, thus The St. Helen’s Unicycle Drill Team was born. Folks who saw them in parades began referring to the school as the “school on wheels.”  Fr. Moran founded and directed the team; he also set  the guidelines. His most famous saying that encompassed the spirit of the team was “ If you’re not here for the Glory of God and St. Helen,  then get off the bus!

The group began performing in 1965 and continued until 1993 when the group disbanded.

In 2013, a group of former students of St. Helens gathered for a reunion and  they decided to resurrect the unicycles. Steve Kekedy was one of the folks  interested in seeing this group return and helped organized a make-shift drill team that rode in the 2013 Maple Festival in Chardon of that year. They began practice and soon the children of the adult performers of the 1970’s and1980’s began cycling. Later in 2013, they appeared in the Newbury Memorial Day Parade and were spotted at Middlefield Summerfest Parade as well. They were making a come back.

The group has continued to grow and once again is being sought out for parades and such. In 2014, they were seen at the Maple Festival in Chardon, Garrettsville Summerfest, and Middlefield Summerfest as well. If you missed them and would like to see them again they will be at the Potato Festival Parade in Mantua, on September 7, 2014, Brimfest in Brimfield, on September 20th and at the Grape Jamboree in Geneva on September 27th and 28th. More information and questions about the team can be directed to Steve Kekedy at 440 708-6324.

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Denise Bly has been a correspondent for the Weekly Villager for five years. She also does the public relations for Garrettsville Summerfest and the Garrettsville Area Chamber. In her spare time, she can be found at most local events, especially J.A. Garfield’s, high school and middle school athletic and musical events. When not out and about in the community, she can be found at home reading, sewing, cooking and spending time with her family.