Stephanie Dietze the wheel deal

Markus Greber

Stephanie Dietze grew tired of spending time inside gyms and decided to hit the mountains instead -- on her unicycle.

The mountains have long called athletes to revel in their bases and peaks. And climbers, skiers, hikers, runners and cyclists have long made a habit of showcasing their talents on the cliffs' challenging terrain. Stephanie Dietze, though, is doing it on one wheel.

The mountain unicyclist already has conquered some of Europe's most daunting slopes -- including the Alps and the Dolomites. Next up? The Pyrenees.

Back it up to Dietze's childhood in Rodgau, Germany. When many children her age were ditching the training wheels on their bikes, Dietze decided two wheels was still one too many. She first picked up a unicycle when she was 8, when her best friend brought her to a learn-to-ride clinic.

"I didn't find unicycling as boring as other sports," Dietze said, noting that soccer and ballet were nice alternatives but lacked the enigma of mastering the single wheel. Instead of veering away from the teetering unicycle because it seemed impossible at first, Dietze was drawn to the challenge.

"I thought I would not be able to do it at all," Dietze said, "but I realized after a couple hours that I could. So instead of giving up on the unicycle like the other kids, I thought, it must be possible."

Markus Greber

Stephanie Dietze and Lutz Eichholz will spend a few weeks next month traversing the Pyrenees in Spain.

Dietze joined the local unicycle club and competed in track events and also in freestyle, a discipline focused on skills and maneuvers many liken to figure skating routines. At 16, she began competing internationally with the German team and was introduced to the world of mountain unicycling, dubbed "muni" by its participants. Muni involves ascending and descending difficult and often obstacle-filled mountain terrain. There are two divisions of competition, downhill and cross-country, and Dietze jumped into both.

"I didn't really get into it until I moved to Austria for my studies in 2006," she said. "All of a sudden, I had these great mountains just outside of my door. I had seen the inside of too many gyms, and I wanted to try something new."

For Dietze, competition was the stepping-stone to pushing the boundaries of single-wheel exploration. At the world championships in New Zealand in 2009, she and a small group of fellow muni athletes rode across the country and into an inevitable question: What's next?

"We came up with the idea of climbing and riding down the highest mountain of Germany, the Zugspitze," Dietze said. "So half a year later in summer 2010, there we were, climbing Zugspitze as the first unicyclists ever who went up and down this mountain, and me being the first woman to do so."

With her muni companions, Lutz Eichholz and David Weichenberger, Dietze had crossed the Alps and the Dolomites by the end of 2012, and the trio is now training to traverse the Pyrenees in Spain, from Bilbao to San Sebastian, beginning Aug. 4. The journey is slated to take two to three weeks. The "warm-up" starts earlier -- Dietze and Eicholz are set to climb the 11,174-foot Mettelhorn peak in the Swiss Pennine Alps starting Sunday.

Balancing on one wheel over narrow terrain -- at times with no trail at all -- brings a unique set of challenges, both mentally and physically. Even with decades of experience, Dietze says the fear of falling is always there.

Too many women don’t challenge themselves. I want women to surprise themselves.
Stephanie Dietze

"I have to stop thinking and just ride," she said. "When I practice, though, the fear is there. Which is why in practice, I just go step by step, and get comfortable. On the mountain, there is no room for thinking, just reaction."

Showing a propensity for mental toughness, Dietze also believes the physical components of the sport are suited for female endurance athletes.

"Muni is very physical -- you need strength, endurance, balance and concentration, and women are very adept to these skills," Dietze said, acknowledging that women can be at a physical disadvantage in carrying a 17-pound unicycle uphill for 14 straight hours of extreme hiking.

"I grew up thinking -- and still think -- we see too much of a difference between men and women, mostly in sports. I want to show women that they can be strong as well. Society teaches them they can't do as much as men, or that it's OK to be weak. Too many women don't challenge themselves. I want women to surprise themselves."

Dietze's coach and mentor, Kris Holm, is hardly surprised by her talent and tenacity. Holm, known to most in the sport as the guru of unicycling, recruited Dietze for his international team. Among eight elite riders representing six countries, Dietze is the only woman.

"I first heard of Stephanie by reputation, as someone who was strong competitively but who also pursued mountain riding adventures for their own sake," Holm said. "Stephanie has the motivation to go it alone -- which is essential in a rare sport like unicycling -- while being social enough to tell the story. That's a rare combination that makes her a really effective ambassador for our sport."

While Dietze and the unicycling community aspire to have their one-wheeled lifestyle recognized as an extreme sport, Dietze holds fast to the philosophy that the true gift of sport isn't global popularity but rather personal growth.

"Unicycling in general has taught me to endure, to try and try and try again if something is not working at first. Where I once saw a trail full of huge rocks and roots before, all of a sudden I see a line that I can ride on. I learn how to see a solution, rather than the problem. If you raise your bar, step by step, if you work on something, you can get there."

Follow Dietze's journey through the Pyrenees here, and follow her on Twitter @stphn_dtz.

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