One summer day last year, Maren Russell’s dad asked her if she wanted to go to the park.
It’s a straightforward question for most families, who’d probably expect to swing or play on the monkey bars. But the Carver family had something else in mind: Teaching her to unicycle.
“I think she said, ‘(I’m) bored,’” remembered her dad, Jim. “And I told her, ‘On a beautiful day like this, when you don’t have anything holding you back, you better go find something fun and not be bored and go do it.’”
In the beginning, it wasn’t so easy. The 12-year-old used the skating rink wall at the Carver Community Park, or Jim would hold her hand for guidance. At first? Frustration kicked in. But then, so did strength of will.
She kept trying and trying, and eventually made it across the rink. Then, a little further. The Pioneer Ridge Middle School student has been at it for a year now and is able to glide around at length.
“It was really fun for me,” Maren said. “It was really frustrating at first, but the more my dad helped me, the better I got.”
Unicycling is thought to be substantially harder than riding a bicycle. There’s usually only one gear, and you must constantly pedal to stay moving. It’s a recipe made of balancing and muscle memory.
Jim first learned to unicycle two years ago. He moved to Carver to be near the river and woods, and found biking to be his workout of choice. But he’d soon trade it in for something with half as many wheels.
“One time, I was leaving the neighborhood and I saw a kid riding on a unicycle out of the woods,” Jim said, recalling the sighting from two years ago. “I thought, ‘OK, that’s cool. I’ve got to get a unicycle.’”
Onto Craigslist he went, where a $20 unicycle awaited.
He started using the chain-link fence at a nearby softball field for balance. Soon, the low price tag made sense. After about a week, his new not-so-reliable transportation broke and he gave it up for six months or so before buying another one.
This time, he was all in.
Jim joined a unicycle club in the Twin Cities where he could practice in an indoor gym with instructors. He’d go to the club, which Maren is also a part of, a couple of times a week to improve.
Now, he rides a few times a week from his house to Winkel Park in Chaska, which is close to 10 miles round-trip.
To Jim, unicycling is a great way to exercise, since running gives him asthma. And when his daughter was in a tough spot mentally last year, unicycling helped bring her out of it.
It makes sure both of their brains and bodies are in shape. That keeps them rolling, and so does connection — with each other and strangers.
Practicing at the park together or riding to a nearby gas station a few times is the most the two have done together, but once club parades are back they’ll be busier.
The father-daughter duo is used to ogling strangers, who usually either have a puzzled or amused look on their faces.
“When you’re on a unicycle, you’re kind of a performer, whether you want to be or not,” Jim said. “You can’t fade into the background very well.”
Some people will stop to giggle; kids will show excitement to see you. Jim’s favorite?
“When people cheer,” he said.
Though he said it’s “technically not very hard,” it feels good to get encouragement.
Plus, unicycling opened up another world for Jim and Maren. On a recent trip to Alaska, room in the luggage was made for a unicycle.
“Hey, I got to see a moose while riding a unicycle,” he said.
For those wanting to learn, Jim offers some tips.
Get a lot of practice sessions in, but don’t overdo it at first. And each time, try to mount the unicycle without help from a wall.
Another suggestion? Get shin guards — they’re not limited to soccer players. It can help avoid injury when falling on a not-so-soft pedal, he said.
Fear of falling can dissuade some people from trying the sport, but Jim said he’s only really fallen a few times this summer. The rest is what he likes to call an “unplanned dismount.”
Technical aspects aside, the best tip he ever got was from a unicycling friend: Most anybody can unicycle. But you can’t be on the fence.
“You’re going to decide to do it,” Jim said. “And you’re going to do it no matter what it takes.”
Matthew Paul stood on the sidelines at U.S. Bank Stadium last December. He watched as quarterback Grif Wurtz led Chaska down the field, scoring a late touchdown to secure a state championship title.
Paul, a back-up quarterback the past two seasons for the Hawks, running the scout team, was looking forward to being Chaska's guy this fall. It was going to be his turn to lead the Hawks on the field.
Instead, Paul, along with teammates, and football and volleyball athletes across the state of Minnesota, must wait, with hopes of having a 2020 season begin in March 2021. A new hybrid third season developed by the Minnesota State High School League announced Aug. 4.
"I was hanging out with Ethan (Bachmann). We kept refreshing his Twitter feed, waiting to see the news. It's something we sort of expecting, but at the same time it's definitely disappointing. My senior year, playing on Fridays, it's something I've looked forward to since third grade," Paul said.
Instead of dwelling on the decision made, Paul is looking at it differently.
"If we played it in the fall, we would have to be really cautious and I know things would have looked different. We might have had any fans. No one knows what will happen in the spring, but hopefully we can get a full season, or at least part of a seasn, have fans, and all of this starts to go away and we can play football again," Paul said.
For Paul, who sat out his junior basketball season recovering from knee surgery, said after a lot of physical therapy, he definitely feels himself again. He spent many hours in the weight room. While organized practices weren't allowed, Paul and teammates got together, matching up 1-on-1, sometimes more of a 7-on-7 passing scrimmage.
"I want to throw a lot more this year. That will be more of a focus of our offense this season. Having guys like Nic (Snuggerud), Ethan, Spencer (Goetz), I'm excited to get going with them. The big thing right now is keeping healthy, getting in the weight room, staying positive through of all this," Paul said.
Paul and Chaska felt good about their chances this fall. A large offensive line, weapons throughout the offense, now it's waiting for March to show all of that.
"These last couple of weeks, I felt really good about where we were. I think we showed ourselves how good we really could be. Running scout team the last two years, getting as many reps as I did, it seems pretty easy for me right now. I'm excited. We just need to stay loose and keep improving for next spring," said Paul, who said he grew 10 inches over two years and stands near 6'5".
While football is classified as a high-risk sport, volleyball is in that medium category along with soccer. So when Mallory Heyer, junior at Chaska High School, found out the news of no fall volleyball she was blind-sighted.
"I was super surprised. I thought we'd have a fall season. Maybe it would be shortened, but I thought we would play. I think my teammates and coaches were expecting to play, too," Heyer said.
Even as it has sunk in that the volleyball season won't start for another six months, Heyer said it still is disappointing.
"Fall sports are so much fun. There's just so much energy that comes out of them. To start a school year without them feels weird. Especially how we left off last year, how we came together in the playoffs, we were all really excited to get going again this month," Heyer said.
After months of playing AAU basketball -- Heyer's team placed third at state on Aug. 9 -- the usual switch to volleyball is a welcome change both physically and mentally.
Heyer wonders how high school volleyball, club volleyball and AAU basketball next spring will coexist. That is a question for many, in multiple sports.
With volleyball not playing, the Chaska junior plans to hit the road with her family and visit college campuses as she looks to narrow potential basketball programs to 10 or so in the next month.
"People ask me all the time if I have any favorites yet. The list is pretty long still. I really want to get out of the Midwest and check out places I've never visited. Really find the best place for me," Heyer said.
While there will be no games in 2020 for Minnesota high school football teams, the MSHSL has developed an optional fall training season for volleyball, football, and MSHSL-sanctioned spring sports.
All MSHSL member schools have the authority to provide the entire training season, offer a reduced training season, or choose not to offer a training season.
Football and volleyball programs can have 12 daily sessions between Sept. 14 and Oct. 3. Each sport will have the opportunity to have an organizational meeting and distribute equipment on a date to be selected prior to their fall training season.
At the discretion of school administration, students may participate simultaneously in approved fall sports and fall training seasons.
Chanhassen High School Athletic Director Cullen Bahn and Chaska High School Athletic Director Jon Summer were meeting this week to discuss a District philosophy for the fall training sessions.
Tryouts, scrimmages versus other programs, jamborees, competitions, and captain’s practices are not allowed this fall for football and volleyball or spring sport training sessions.
MSHSL spring sports include badminton, baseball, boys and girls golf, boys and girls lacrosse, softball, synchronized swimming, boys tennis, and track and field.
Heyer said most of her high school volleyball teammates play in the Chaska Juniors program. Because of this, those club teams are looking to schedule fall leagues outside of the control of the MSHSL.
Heyer, though, is out of luck with that scenario. That means she will have more time for basketball this fall. Something that is usually put on hold.
"I for sure will focus more on basketball this fall. I think our AAU season will be extended. We'll likely run some practices, maybe play in a few tournaments. It's a great chance to keep working on my game," Heyer said.