Liz Wilson was living a dead-end life and wanted more exciting, so she re-adopted her childhood passion for unicycling.
A divorcee has told how she was rescued from a mid-life crisis by taking up extreme unicycling at 50 – moving 2,000 miles to live beside mountains, which she could pedal up.
Liz Wilson, 56, loved the monocycle as a child in the 1970s, but thought she had parked up for good in her teens, until she saw a YouTube video of German unicyclist Stephanie Dietze riding down the Matterhorn mountain in the Alps – and suddenly realised what was missing from her life.
The hostel owner, of Ouray, Colorado, USA, said: “Straight away I said to myself, ‘I need to do that!'”
She continued: “I was so excited to see my old sport again being used on such extreme terrain and was even more excited that it was a female who was doing it.”
At the time, Liz was struggling with loneliness in the wake of her 15-year marriage breaking up and had been living in Richmond, Virginia, since 2008 – away from the rugged terrain she loved – so she could be closer to her mother, Ruth Wilson, 83.
She said: “I was in a bit of a rut as I hit my 50s and wasn’t feeling at all myself.
“I hated where I was living and felt bored and lonely. I needed more excitement in my life, so I decided to get a unicycle!”
Buying her first unicycle in years for $500 (£380) in March 2013, just a few weeks after watching the video, Liz was soon back in the saddle – and completely hooked.
Starting off on bicycle trails, she began building up her pace and stamina in earnest – soon cycling for up to eight hours a day on the trails near her home, reaching top speeds of 12 mph.
Within a year she was fit enough to start competing at the annual national unicycle competition and, as well as earning herself a haul of medals despite being up against people 30 years her junior, she met her hero Stephanie Dietze at the international championships in Montreal.
Such was her love of the sport, that in 2016 she even relocated 2,000 miles – to live in the mountainous region of Colorado, where she would be able to take on more challenging cycle routes.
“It’s never a bad day here,” she said. “I fit my working day around my unicycling so that I can cycle during the day and work at night.
“The sport has completely changed my life. Through it, I have met a community of great people who also love unicycling and I have become healthy and happy again.”
She added: “I have got back to the old me.”
Raised in a family that encouraged sportiness, Liz, who grew up Dover, New Hampshire, was always active as a child, going on to become a professional skier when she left school.
She recalled: “My dad was always telling me to go outside and play, and pretty much as soon as I could walk I would be skiing or doing gymnastics.”
She continued: “Then when a friend of mine was bought a unicycle by her parents, I also got one.
“In the 1970s, it was all the rage and there were probably around eight other kids in my class who had one. We would spend hours cycling around the neighbourhood and going to and from school on unicycles each day.”
But as she moved into her teens, Liz started to ride less and less, instead devoting time to her studies, to cheerleading and the pursuit of boys, as her unicycle gathered dust in the garage.
Eventually, she left it behind after moving to Lake Tahoe, California, on leaving school to further her skiing career.
And while Liz remained a sports fanatic, even after retiring from professional skiing in her mid 30s, continuing to hit the slopes for fun, as well as rock climbing during the summer months, she never thought to dig out her old unicycle again.
But in 2008, her active mountaineering lifestyle was put on hold when she decided to up sticks with her husband, Christian, 50, to move closer to her mum as she got older.
She continued: “It was a real blow to me moving from California where I was either skiing or rock climbing basically most days,” she said.
“Virginia by comparison is very flat and I found it extremely difficult not being able to go to the mountains to do the sports I love.”
Hitting 50 signalled a proper mid-life crisis for Liz, whose marriage had ended after they grew apart, and who lacked close friends and felt isolated in her new hometown.
She continued: “I was lonely, unhealthy and really wasn’t feeling myself at all – a classic mid-life crisis.”
But at the start of 2013, seeing the video of Dietze – a former world champion mountain unicyclist – gliding across the slopes of the Matterhorn, one of the highest summits in Europe, she was inspired to return to her first love.
With unicycle outlets thin on the ground, Liz even had a bike custom-made for her at a local bicycle shop, much to the surprise of the shop’s staff who thought she was “crazy”.
“They kept on giggling at me and must have thought I was a little strange,” said Liz.
“But I was thrilled with it when it finally arrived and was even more thrilled to discover that I hadn’t lost the knack at all.
“It was just like riding a normal bike!”
Hooked from the outset, she worked hard each day on her riding skills, pushing herself to go on longer and longer journeys.
Within six months she was easily taking on 20-mile rides along the cycle trails near her home and by the end of her first year as a born-again unicyclist, was already competing at the National Unicycling Championships in Minnesota.
Then, a year on from that she entered the International Championship in Montreal, Canada, where she met Stephanie.
“Everyone on the circuit was so warm and welcoming to me, which, having been a professional skier, I can say is not the norm for sporting communities who are all competing against one another,” she continued.
“But it was really a case of everyone loving the sport and just wanting to promote unicycling, as opposed to their own ambitions.”
Now happily ensconced in Colorado, Liz focuses more on mountain unicycling – a discipline that was yet to take off when she was a child riding around the streets of Dover.
And, in spite of the sport’s growing prominence – much aided by Englishman Edward Pratt’s 18,000-mile unicycle ride around the world last year, which raised over £300,000 for charity – Liz says she still gets odd looks from passers-by.
“I often have people saying to me sarcastically, ‘What happened to your other wheel?'” she said.
“People are often surprised at my age too.”
She continued: “And though there are days when I feel a bit sore after a long ride, I’m a big believer that by remaining young at heart you will stay young all over.
“I don’t believe in ‘over the hill’ and I dislike the idea that you should stop trying new things just because you are older.
“If my story shows anything, it’s that you can be a unicyclist whether you 56 or eight – it doesn’t make a difference. Getting back in the saddle is the best thing I have ever done.”
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