The Wheel Deal
What does it take to stand back outside the pack and see the world from a different angle? Individualism and commitment. But to make that initial step in the first place takes something more… Is it courage, bravery or could it be described more accurately as a lack of fear?
Jason Auld is a 19-year-old semi-professional sportsman, living and working in Edinburgh. The capital has many traditions, and as host to the Commonwealth games in 1970 and again in 1986, sport is a strong element of the city’s culture.
What separates Jason from other athletes — the footballers, golfers, swimmers and tennis players, is the sport itself: camaraderie in the shared experience of victory and defeat, triumph and disappointment — things which are not so readily available to the guy who accurately describes himself as the only street unicyclist in Scotland. To emphasise his isolation more definitively, he’s probably one of only a dozen participating in the sport, as a sport, in the UK.
It takes something to make that choice. For a start there’s the equipment itself. The unicycle is easily identifiable as part of our childhood: the circus, street theatre, clowns and fire-jugglers complete with painted faces and plenty of laughs. Regardless of the certain skill it takes to get up and stay on one wheel in the first place, there’s something endemically comical about the unicycle.
Talking to Jason, I discovered, his initial attraction to unicycling wasn’t motivated by theatrical ambition. There’s a suggestion he’s not even clear himself why he started on such a very individual journey. What he describes is an experience that was simply meant to be.
Jason remembers his 14th birthday and a bike in the window. It wasn’t a toyshop; it wasn’t even a sports shop. His bike was in the window of one of those interesting places. In Jason’s own words, “it was a shop that sold wind things, kites, kite-kits, things that flew, things like that. I saw the unicycle in the window and I don’t know why. It was just something I wanted to do. I wanted to see if I could get up there and go on that one wheel.”
Living with his mother in the cultural mix of the city’s south side, there are not many role models for a 14 year-old on a unicycle. You’ll find plenty of older men and women who’ll offer advice on football, your golf swing and tennis grip, but if you’re going to make that a unicycle go, you’ll have to do it yourself.
Jason recalls a manual that came with his unicycle and his vagueness suggests it was a manual that never really became a well-thumbed one
“I got onto the bike by holding onto the railings and just kind of pedalling my way round the block holding onto whatever support I could find. I didn’t fall off a lot, because when you feel your balance going you can just step off the unicycle, back onto the street. Initially you put in a lot of hard work and you don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Then it just clicks.”
Once the laws of gravity had been mastered it was a matter of what next, where to go, and what to do. Unusually, Jason wasn’t coming to unicycling from a street background. He had enjoyed conventional sports – football, basketball and rugby. He didn’t have any strong connection with the skateboard crowd, BMX crews or inline acrobats who populate the city’s landmarks like Bristo Square.
But that was where he found his next inspiration. Those flips, jumps, drops, spins and twists performed on boards, skates and bikes are awesome
to witness. Jason decided he wanted to match them on his unicycle. The Internet provided support that he couldn’t find on the streets of Edinburgh. With a search through a dozen or so social networking sites, suddenly Jason was no longer alone. He discovered other unicyclists all over the world who provided inspiration and used their wheel to test the boundaries of street tricks. He found video clips and message boards where flips, spins, somersaults and drops were discussed in technical detail.
“It was encouraging to find out that I wasn’t doing all this on my own,” recalls Jason. “But there was another side to it as well. Suddenly I wasn’t unique. I discovered that things I thought I’d invented and created on my own, were being done by others and often being done better. It made me want to be better too.”
The next stop for Jason was the British championships…a 16-year-old from Edinburgh on a train to Scarborough with nothing but a unicycle for company. It marked the turning point for Jason and took him to the next level. A thought began to crystallise that there might just be a possibility that the gimmicky piece of kit he’d liberated from the shop window two years ago could provide a direction in his life. Since then he’s been to the European championships in Geneva, he’s given displays in Edinburgh and most recently at NASS the UK’s biggest festival of street sports, he’s propped himself up with a little sponsorship and he has business mentoring that has resulted in a place on Edinburgh’s EHX team based at Leith’s Transgression skatepark.
He’ll be showcasing his skills during the Edinburgh festival where he hopes to become the first person, certainly in the UK, to perform a 540-degree spin with flip. Somewhere after that there’s the world championships in New Zealand.
Injuries are something he takes in his stride. “They’re not that dramatic,” he insists. “Staved fingers are the most common, wrist injuries when you spin the saddle, knee and ankle strains and occasional cuts and bruises.” The physical dangers are not so much dismissed as barely recognised.
Not surprisingly Jason expresses a growing interest in sports psychology. “It’s something I’d like to find out more about. Most of my achievements have been self-motivated. You see a clip of someone perform a trick or you imagine one for yourself. It’s there in your head, you know what needs to be done, you visualise it, you give it a try, you get it wrong. You tell yourself, ‘Come on, you know what needs to be done, you can do it this time,’ and then you try it again.”
There is striking image of Jason Auld that seems to describe clearer than words can where he sees himself in the world. He is balanced on his unicycle, high on the Salisbury Crags, a high, rugged geological escarpment that overlooks the Old Town. A 19-year-old who’s chosen to step outside the crowd: he’s poised on a precipice, but the image isn’t of someone on the edge.
Perhaps there’s a message for those who prefer to trace their boundaries within the anonymity of a crowd. As for our uni-pioneer, a Beckett quote springs to mind: “All of old. Nothing Else ever. Ever tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”