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Jefferson Elementary unicycle-riding teacher forms club to teach kids how to ride a one-wheeler

Duke Swanson, fifth-grader, attracts attention during the after-school unicycle class at Jefferson Elementary in Spokane on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Duke Swanson, fifth-grader, attracts attention during the after-school unicycle class at Jefferson Elementary in Spokane on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Lots of folks bike to work in Spokane, but Tom Vogt may be the only one who commutes on one wheel.

He’s a familiar sight on Fridays in the Jefferson Elementary neighborhood, as he rides his unicycle to work.

Vogt teaches first grade at Jefferson, and last month with the support of the school’s parent-teacher group, he launched an after-school unicycle club.

Now, twice a week, seven kids with varying abilities wheel through the school hallways, often holding on to lockers for support.

“I’ve always wanted to learn to ride a unicycle,” Vogt said.

Seven years ago, at age 54, he went down to Spoke ’N Sport and bought one. Then he taught himself to ride it by watching YouTube videos.

“My wife thought I was crazy,” he said, laughing. “I practiced in the backyard. About a week into it, I let go of the fence and did one revolution.”

Persistence paid off. Now, in addition to riding his unicycle to school each Friday, Vogt can even ride it and walk his dog at the same time.

“I hook his leash on my pouch,” he said.

Children would swarm around him on the playground when he rode his unicycle. Vogt realized there might be some great lessons, aside from balance and coordination, that children could learn while mastering riding on one wheel.

“I wrote our PTG a proposal,” he said. “I told them kids would learn three things: hard work, setting a goal, and the big one – don’t give up.”

The PTG funded six unicycles and the club launched. Vogt plans to facilitate several six-week sessions.

“Everyone struggles the first time, just sitting on it,” he said.

But on a recent Wednesday, several children were swooping down the hallways, and for the first time, a couple of children joined Vogt outdoors.

Grant Lichfield, 12, said, when he heard about the club, he thought it would be something worth learning and doing.

“It sticks with you once you get it,” he said. “Going fast is the most fun.”

But before going fast, it’s important to remember something.

“The big thing is no brakes!” said Jacob McMillan, 10.

Vogt nodded.

“You teach them how to stop by stepping forward and not worrying about the unicycle.”

The youngest member of the club, Kaxai Lo, 8, worked hard at learning to mount his unicycle.

Lo’s goal?

“I want to ride like that,” he said, pointing to an older boy who sped down the hall.

Rebecca Hoch, 11, is the lone girl in the club.

“It’s like being on the balance beam,” she said as she scooted down the hall, using the lockers to steady herself.

Vogt agreed.

“Your arms are so important for balance.”

He’s proud of how hard the children are working to master these new skills.

“You watch them work at it, and all of the sudden they get it,” he said. “It’s like something magical happens.”

Hoch let go of the lockers and rolled forward, fiercely determined.

“It’s not discouraging,” she said. “It’s just the opposite. I like that it’s a big struggle, and you have to believe in yourself to do it.”

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