Rock climbing

climbing instructor Gonzaga uses the unicycle to travel the world | Sports

At Gonzaga University, Phil Sanders is known for being the friendly head instructor at Wild Walls, helping students in rock climbing courses achieve their goals.

But in the unicycling world, Sanders is seen as a community leader.

Sanders discovered unicycling in seventh grade, around the same time he discovered rock climbing when his middle school gymnasium pulled out all of its gear and gave students two weeks off. Thrown by the wall was an abandoned unicycle.

“The whole two weeks I rode the unicycle, I was like, ‘I want to know how to do this,'” Sanders said.

The dedication to learning stayed with him beyond those two weeks, and he begged his parents to give him a unicycle for his birthday. His reputation for giving up expensive hobbies tired his parents, but they bought one anyway.

“They gave me a unicycle and to their surprise and dismay I never stopped riding,” Sanders said. “I never quit. I started riding it in school, I rode it every day, which was conceivable in high school… After a while I really started riding it. I was very captivated by the difficulty as it took me a month or more to walk around the block.

From his debut in 2000 until his first unicycling event in 2006, all Sanders learned was self-taught. Riding wherever he went, from school to the climbing gym, developed his balance and endurance and gave him an edge over other riders.

His only unicycle friend at the time had exposed him to what mountain unicycling was all about, yet Sanders had never tried it until the 2006 Moab Mountain Unicycle Festival in Moab, Utah. Showing up to the festival with a week-long mountain unicycle, Sanders held firm on the 17-mile Porcupine Rim trail with the other unicyclists.

According to Sanders, it was a gnarly mountain bike trail, with tricky sections that even experienced riders skipped. Along the way, more and more riders fell behind, and Sanders took the lead with a group of about 10 riders. Eventually they passed and everyone was riding alone.

“I was running out of water, my muscles were burning more than they had ever been,” Sanders said. “I was in the middle of the most beautiful desert, and it was like when it clicked, where I was like, ‘Oh my God, I literally want to do this every day for the rest of my life until that my legs die and my hands give out and all like that.

Climbing took precedence over unicycling after this festival, and Sanders continued to attend all Moab Mountain festivals for a full decade until they stopped.

According to Sanders, unicycling competitions are like the unicycling Olympics. There are running events in all areas of athletics, such as 100 meters forward, 100 meters back, 100 meters on one foot, 400 meters, 10 km, high jump, long jump and more. There are also obstacle courses (called “trials”), trick competitions, skate park competitions, artistic pairs and freestyle (figure skating on a unicycle), downhill and uphill mountain unicycling , a marathon and a 100 km. Sanders typically competes in skate park trick trials and competitions.

In 2008, Sanders traveled to Rapid City, South Dakota for his first North American Unicycling Championships and Congresses (NAUCC). He received his first medal for third place in the high jump and realized he was good enough to compete.

After the NAUCC, Sanders first left the country in 2010 for the Unicycle World Championship and Convention (UNICON) in Wellington, New Zealand. Having no accommodation, he appealed on a unicycle forum for accommodation and was able to crash into someone’s floor.

When he arrived it was a hostel full of the best unicyclists in the world he had never met before. Sleeping on the same floor were the New Zealand world champion, great Australian riders, world famous French riders and many more.

“Just by chance I met all these amazing people and became good friends with them,” Sanders said.

Since those two weeks in Wellington, Sanders has traveled to UNICON in Italy, Montreal, Spain and, most recently, Grenoble, France, where he competed in skate park tricks trials and competition. Although he did not rank as high as in previous years, he was still surprised by his success after the pandemic interrupted his initial preparation.

“I would never have left America if not for the unicycling world championships that took place in New Zealand,” Sanders said. “I traveled to New Zealand on my own and it was so out of my comfort zone to travel alone and talk with people who don’t speak my language, even just to get my passport. I learned that I loved it. I love this discomfort and I love travel and new experiences.

Since then Sanders has made a name for himself in the unicycling community by attending every event, riding well and being an active member of the community. He helped create rule books and rewrite world and national competition rules and served on the board of directors for the urban riding of the Unicycling Society of America.

According to Sanders, although competitions provide a goal to achieve, they are few and far between. The majority of his driving takes place around town, working on laps with friends to try and unlock more advanced skills.

One of his unicyclist friends is Mos Hart, a 17-year-old unicyclist from Spokane. While the two knew each other through rock climbing, it was unicycling that brought them together.

Hart knew how to ride before he met Sanders but was unfamiliar with extreme unicycling. Since meeting Sanders when they were 13, the two have traveled to unicycling events across the country.

“He’s always open to wanting to teach me and help me grow in my riding has made such a difference,” Hart said. “He never tried to be selfish with his skills, and the things he knew he was always trying to share to help me grow to be the best I could be.”

While Hart said Sanders has been quite the mentor, they are now on a more equal skill level and Hart has even started to outplay Sanders in rail grinding. After years of riding together, their mentorship turned into a friendship.

“After learning to ride, I don’t think I would have gone on and tried to learn new stuff if it wasn’t for Phil,” Hart said. “Seeing him ride has always been an inspiration to me.”

Sanders still rides every other day and loves building custom unicycles to see how everyone feels. For him, the unicycle is a lifetime commitment.

“I never want to stop [unicycling]”, Sanders said. “It sounds very hokey to say, but I think unicycling teaches you a lot about balance, not just about doing it literally, but in life. Unicycling is one of those activities where it won’t get you anything. There’s never a point in unicycling where you get good enough that you can now do a variety of skills. It’s one of those things that reminds me that if you want something in life, you have to go out there and work for it.