Elmhurst woman welcomes challenge of wheel gymnastics
Kandi Pajer is just trying to keep her balance. But it's hard.
Pajer is a gymnast. She has been since she was 3, growing up on balance beams, uneven bars and 39-by-39-foot gymnastics floors.
But now the mother of two is leaving much of that comfort level behind as she prepares to compete in this week's 10th Wheel Gymnastic World Championship in Chicago.
If you've never heard of the sport, you're not alone. It goes by many names: the gymnastics wheel, the gym wheel, the German wheel, the Rhoenrad.
Pajer just calls it "the wheel."
At 36 years old, Pajer is in her infancy as a wheel gymnast. She didn't grow up on the wheel like many of her competitors did. Indeed, when she first began training three years ago, the sport was virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic.
As she prepares for this week's event, she knows she's no expert. You can't master a sport at this level of competition in just three years.
But that doesn't mean she isn't ready to try.
World champion wheel master Wolfgang Bientzle brought the sport to Pajer's gym three years ago for a demonstration. Pajer immediately fell in love with it.
When people ask her what wheel gymnastics is, she gives the simplest explanation she knows:
"I tell them: 'If you think of a hamster in a wheel, that's kind of what it is.'"
But that doesn't quite do it justice.
The sport demands a strong core. Pajer likens it to the challenges of the uneven bars.
But the uneven bars aren't moving targets.
The endurance it requires is different from the demands of traditional gymnastics. Pajer says the most difficult part is getting a feel for the timing and the motion of the wheel.
"Many people have seen Cirque du Soleil," she said. "And all I have to say is, 'It's like in Cirque when they do the cartwheels inside the wheel and flips over the top.' People get pretty excited that I'm able to do that."
Limiting her falls
At a gymnastics clinic two years ago Pajer was demonstrating a roundoff, one of the simplest moves in gymnastics. She normally does such moves barefoot or in gymnastics slippers. This time she performed it in her gym shoes.
That was a mistake. She ruptured her Achilles tendon and spent the next eight months rehabbing.
The injury set her back in her wheel training and still bothers her on occasion. But she was able to compete in the U.S. Open qualifying trials in March and made Team USA.
The world championship begins Monday at the North Park University Gymnasium, 3225 W. Forester Ave., Chicago. This is the first time the Wheel Gymnastics World Championship has ever been held outside Europe.
The sport dates to 1924, when it was invented in Germany by a blacksmith's son named Otto Feick. The Germans showed it off at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but it never became an Olympic sport. Wheel routines are only a few minutes long. Competitions feature three apparatuses: straight-line (with the wheel rolling forward and back), spiral (spinning like a coin) and vault (jumping from the wheel). Competitors perform routines on each apparatus and receive scores from judges.
The sport's first world championships were held in 1995, and athletes from 25 countries now compete. The championships are held every other year.
Pajer has been training with the German-born Bientzle for the past 18 months in preparation for the championships. Bientzle is the director of the USA Wheel Gymnastics Federation and is a master of the sport. In addition to winning eight world titles, he has worked with Cirque du Soleil, Disney and the Monte Carlo Circus Festival.
"He is so knowledgeable about wheel as well as being able to instruct athletes," Pajer said. "If you're having a hard time, he's able to encourage you and he usually knows exactly what to tell you to be able to get over that hump or be successful."
Pajer knows she is not at the level of many of her competitors. She is awed by the skill she sees from foreign wheel gymnasts. They perform with such beauty and grace, while at times Pajer feels like she's still trying to figure out where to put her feet.
"I'm just looking to have a strong routine, be confident in my performance and not have any falls," she said. "Right now, with Team USA, we're trying to show the world that the United States is practicing wheel gymnastics and we are getting better. I don't think there's a chance of me placing."
A mother first
Pajer is just trying to keep her balance, at least for a while longer. Distractions are plenty. She lives in Elmhurst and teaches gymnastics classes at Sokol Spirit in Brookfield. She is a wife and a mother. Her children, 9-year-old Max and 6-year-old Scarlet, take up much of her time.
They are gymnasts themselves, and Pajer often brings them to practice.
"It's difficult to have them at practice with me and try to focus on my practicing and make sure that they're focusing during their practicing," she said. "Luckily, I have good kids who are athletic and like to do this kind of stuff."
Max has even started picking up the wheel. Scarlet, much to her frustration, is not yet tall enough to reach the handles.
But with kids, Pajer admits it can be hard to find time to focus on her own training. She is grateful that Bientzle is so flexible and lets her practice when she has time.
With so much going on, the upcoming world championships might mark the end of Pajer's short career as a competitive wheel gymnast. The time commitment is one reason, the nagging Achilles pain is another. But that doesn't mean she won't keep picking up the wheel after the championships conclude.
"I will continue to stay strong and practice the skills I've been working on and hopefully pick up some new skills," she said. "And maybe do another competition in the future.
"I think gymnastics or circus arts or any activities like that are so good for people of any age. It's good for your mental capacity as well as your physical capacity."
Pajer, if anyone, knows that it's good for your balance, too.
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