Put a challenge in front of Gracie Cole and she will shock you with her determination and resolve to not only meet the goal, but surpass it. It’s not a stretch to say that if you placed a Coney Island Hot Dog Eating registration form in front of her, she would likely be raising the championship belt within the year.
As the youngest of three children growing up in California, she learned quickly that if she didn’t keep up, she wasn’t going to be able to play with the big kids. That mindset has stayed with her throughout her life. It was with her when she took up field hockey, became part of the junior national team and earned a full scholarship playing field hockey at Duke University. It was with her when she became interested in the unicycle, then became the first woman to unicycle across the United States of America. It was with her when she took up marathons and began participating in 50-mile ultramarathons. It was with her when she made the decision to move to Antarctica for a job. And it remains with her now as she travels across the country on roller skates as a part of States on Skates, an undertaking that emerged out of her decision to join a roller derby team.
Reese Witherspoon, take notes. You might just be playing this empowered woman one day in a Wild-style film. Read on to learn about Gracie’s varied and impressive successes, the challenges that she looks forward to encountering on the States on Skates route and how a 10-year-old tried to join her cross-country unicycle adventure.
It seems that when you take up a new hobby, you are able to excel and bring your ability to expert levels. What is your motivation?
The best way I have come to describe myself is that I am a very goal-oriented Point A to Point B person. My parents were really wonderful about letting me explore many options, and my biggest struggle was, and continues to be only choosing one or two goals or activities to pursue at a time. My interests are broad and I find myself impatiently wanting to do it all!
You have completed two cross-country trips (North Carolina to Washington, then Canada to Mexico)using a unicycle. What is your favorite part about seeing countries in this very specific way?
One of the neatest things about propelling yourself over a vast distance, whether by walking or cycling, is the inherent facet of truly experiencing your surroundings. You don’t just see the wind blow the trees; you yourself are blown by the wind. There is a purity in the experience that can be pretty addicting.
Is there a memorable encounter on your first unicycle trip that stands out in your mind?
On my first ride across the U.S. in 2006, I was riding across the northeast corner of Arkansas en route from Tennessee to Missouri. My good friend, Marritt, was riding behind me on her bike and suddenly we noticed that a young girl of 10-years-old began following us on her one-speed cruiser bike. She rode about 10 miles with us before we stopped at a junction, bought her some ice cream and insisted that she called her mom. She came back from the phone call and said, “My mom said I don’t have to be home until Friday.” This was a Wednesday. It blew our minds.
How did people react to seeing you unicycling long distance?
There were a lot of dropped jaws, literally. Many swerving cars. Cars that would miss the fact that their light had turned green. Gawkers. While many people would take my photo with nary a smile or human-to-human interaction, there were just as many who took the time to chat with me and find out my story. Because I was riding to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, many people were eager to share their connection to cancer or unicycling, or long-distance trips in general.
Did you have a favorite landscape that you cycled through? Why did it stick out in your mind?
On my first trip, I remember relishing the Rocky Mountains. By the time I got there, my legs were strong enough that I could just enjoy the eight percent grade and the astounding scenery. I also loved everything they stood for; I loved their monumental presence that signified the great milestone of having made it so far west.
Why would you encourage women to take solo trips? How do you think independent travel empowers women?
When traveling solo, there is a necessary self-reliance that develops, that will absolutely carry over into other parts of life. If you didn’t have strong self-reliance before, you will develop it by necessity and it will only augment your approach to other challenges you face in life.
Check out Part 2 of this interview with the impressive Gracie Cole to learn more about States on Skates.