Gonzaga rock-climbing instructor uses unicycling to travel the globe | Sports

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

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

Sanders found unicycling in seventh grade, around the same time he found climbing when his middle school gym brought out all of their equipment and gave students two weeks of free time. Discarded by the wall was an abandoned unicycle. 

“For the two entire weeks I just rode the unicycle, I was like ‘I want to know-how to do this,’” Sanders said.

The dedication to learn stayed with him past those two weeks, and he begged his parents to get him a unicycle for his birthday. His reputation for abandoning expensive hobbies made his parents weary, but they purchased one anyway.

“They got me a unicycle and to their absolute shock and dismay, I never stopped riding,” Sanders said. “I just never stopped. I started riding to school, I rode it every day that was conceivably possible in high school … After a while I just really started loving it. I was very captivated by how hard it was because it took me a month or more to just ride around the block.”

From when he began in 2000 to his first unicycling event in 2006, everything Sanders learned was self-taught. Riding everywhere he went, from school to the climbing gym, built up his balance and endurance and gave him an edge over other riders.

His one unicycling friend at the time had exposed him to what mountain unicycling was, but still, Sanders had never tried it until the 2006 Moab Mountain Unicycle Festival in Moab, Utah. Showing up to the festival with a week-old mountain unicycle, Sanders held his own on the 17-mile Porcupine Rim Trail with the other unicyclists.

According to Sanders, it was a gnarly mountain bike trail, with hard sections that even experienced bikers skip out on. Throughout the ride, more and more cyclists fell behind, and Sanders broke ahead with a group of about 10 riders. Eventually, they trickled out and everyone was riding alone. 

“I was out of water, my muscles were burning worse than they’d ever been,” Sanders said. “I was in the middle of the most beautiful desert, and that 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 my legs die and my hands give out and everything like that.’”

Climbing took a backseat to unicycling after that festival, and Sanders continued to go to every Moab Mountain festival for a full decade until they stopped. 

According to Sanders, unicycling competitions are like the Olympics of unicycling. There are racing events from everything in track and field, such as 100-meter forward, 100-meter backward, 100-meter one-footed, 400-meter, 10k, high jump, long jump and more. There are also obstacle courses (called “trials”), trick competitions, skate park competitions, artistic pairs and freestyling (figure skating on a unicycle), downhill and uphill mountain unicycling, a marathon and 100k. Sanders typically competes in trials and skate park trick competitions.

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

Following the NAUCC, Sanders left the country for the first time in 2010 for the Unicycling Convention and World Championship (UNICON) in Wellington, New Zealand. Lacking a place to stay, he put a call out on a unicycling forum for housing and was able to crash on someone’s floor.

When he arrived, it was a hostel full of the best unicyclists in the world that he hadn’t met before. Sleeping on the same floor was the world champion from New Zealand, big riders from Australia, world famous French riders and more. 

“Just by happenstance, I met all of 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 trials and a skate park trick competition. While he didn’t place as high as he had in previous years, he was still surprised by his success after the pandemic interrupted his original preparation. 

“I would have never left America if not for the unicycle world championships that took place in New Zealand,” Sanders said. “I traveled to New Zealand by myself and it was so out of my comfort zone to travel alone and talk with people who don’t speak my language, even just getting my passport. I learned that I just love it. I love that discomfort and I love traveling 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 has helped create rule books and rewrite world and national competition rules and served on the board of directors for the Unicycling Society of America’s urban riding. 

According to Sanders, while competitions provide a goal to work toward, they are few and far between. The majority of his riding happens around town, working on tricks with friends to try and unlock more advanced skills.

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

Hart knew how to ride before meeting Sanders but didn’t know about extreme unicycling yet. Since meeting Sanders when he was 13, the two have traveled to unicycling events across the country.

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

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

“After I learned to ride, I don’t think I would have kept pursuing it and trying to learn new tricks if it wasn’t for Phil,” Hart said. “Seeing him ride was always an inspiration for me.”

Sanders still rides every other day and loves building custom unicycles to see how each one feels. For him, unicycling is a lifetime commitment.

“I never want to stop [unicycling],” Sanders said. “It sounds very hokey to say, but I do think that unicycling teaches you a lot about balance, not just about literally doing it, but in life. Unicycling is one of those activities where it will not give 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 and work for it.”

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