I Was a Fliptwister

JP’s comment last week mentioned the Fliptwisters. Allow me to explain.

The Fliptwisters were a bunch of elementary school kids who performed “tricks.” That’s what we called our gymnastics-ish routines—we were too young and our world was still innocent enough not to snicker over some conjectured double entendre.

Led by our gym teacher (we’ll call him Mr. M), we met for an hour every morning before school and at least two hours after school, practicing and learning new tricks. We performed choreographed tumbling, unicycle, and mini-tramp routines during intermission at college basketball games, at old folks’ homes, for disabled kids, during parades. I was a member of the “Spanish Fleas,” the elite tumblers who performed increasingly more difficult tricks, from forward rolls to aerial front-walkovers, down the mat to the tune of Spanish Flea (most of you will know the song from a Simpsons episode but to those of us alive in 1965, it was a Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass hit). Yes, indeed.

I was an original Fliptwister. I don’t remember what year it started—I was either in the 3rd or 4th grade, maybe 1969-1970. It started out with just tumbling and mini-tramp routines, and then unicycles were added, and then Mr. M kept finding more obscure vehicles for our talents. There were stilts and rings and really tall unicycles and the dreaded German wheel. We even had a see-sawing ramp for the unicycles. I don’t know where he found these things. They struck me as European—had I known what “Felliniesque” meant when I was 11, that’s what I would have called it.

Mr. M was a tough customer. If he hadn’t been an elementary school gym teacher, I’m certain he would have been a high school or college football coach, modeling himself after Woody Hayes. He had blond hair, looked German but carried himself like a gruff Midwesterner, tall and muscular, a steak-and-potatoes kind of guy. Looking back, it is hard for me to imagine what motivated him to create this traveling show. Maybe he was trying to honor some Germanic ancestor with feats of strength and agility, accompanied by vaulting horses and rings and things.

The Fliptwisters quickly became “popular”—in the relative sense, of course; no one outside of our suburb knew about us. By the 5th grade, we were touring around central Ohio and appearing on the local news as snappy human interest material. We had t-shirts and uniforms. We all had unicycles.

In my ongoing effort to reconstruct my childhood, I googled “Fliptwister.” To my surprise, I found a comment on a blog, a testimony to the curious little subculture in which we lived:

When I was in elementary school, few people rode bikes, most rode unicycles to school. I didn’t think twice at the time but it must have been pretty funny. The people who were really good rode high rise ones (like 6 feet tall). There was a team called the fliptwisters and they did all sorts of gymnastics, plus unicycle tricks like two high risers holding a pole, riding in circles, between them while someone did flips on it (pre-lawsuit days obviously). Crazy stuff that you do when you grow up in Ohio.

I recall being one of those doing flips. I didn’t weigh much so I was often selected to do the trickier tricks—and test new equipment, like the German wheel. Cirque du Soleil has a web page about the German wheel. One look at that thing reminds me why I hated it so much. Mr. M insisted that I be the first to try it. At no more than 4’8″, I was not tall enough to reach from one end to the other. I tried to reach the handles on tip-toe but I was terrified of falling out, skeptical of momentum or any other law of physics that might apply. Mr. M and I had a showdown and I nearly quit the team. It was one of the few times we argued.

I had forgotten that we rode our unicycles everywhere. I learned how to ride by the tried-and-true method of clinging to the chainlink fence that bordered the blacktop playground. First, you master the quick step onto the pedals, and with each rotation of the wheel you pull yourself along the fence. Once you get used to the feel, you push yourself off the fence and fall and do it over again. I was too short to manage the 6′ tall unicycle, not having the leg length to reach the pedals. And anyway, I found them impractical. Where could you go? The slightest dip in the ground could send the thing flying.

I have a vivid memory of an afternoon spent riding around the neighborhood on our unicycles, calling our fellow Fliptwisters out into the street like pied-pipers, creating a long train, riding up and down the streets that were named after poets (Longfellow, Poe, et al).

Anytime I hear a song from this time period—1968-1972—I flash back instantly to the gym. We had a small turntable-in-a-box, the kind you would find in a classroom, and everyone brought in their favorite 45s to play during practice: Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, Roberta Flack, Three Dog Night, Al Green, Carole King, the Stylistics, the Staple Singers, the Osmonds, the Partridge Family. One year, some girlfriends and I—mostly Spanish Fleas—choreographed a routine to the Partridge Family’s “I Can Feel Your Heartbeat.” We performed it in the dark with blacklight and wore white socks and white ribbons in our hair so they glowed in the light. Tell me you’re not impressed.

After sixth grade, we were expected to put away our unicycles and join a real gymnastics team, which I did until I discovered pot and cheerleading (another story entirely). In high school, I attended Mr. M’s retirement party. Most of the Fliptwisters were there, and some of us were drunk (3.2 beer was legal for 18 year olds, which really meant that all beer was legal). My friend Chard (short for Richard) and I found a grassy spot outside the reception hall to do backflips and aerials and other tricks. I sprained my wrist.

If I were ever to see Mr. M again, I’d tell him what a blast that was. All of it.

18 Comments I Was a Fliptwister

  1. Kathy Watz-Fabrizio August 31, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Like you I was a fellow Fliptwister. I started googling this today, because I still have my unicycle and am now trying to teach my son to ride. He is having a blast,and ny neighbors think I must be crazy letting my 9 year old try it. My sister ands I were tumbling line leaders all through elementary school and I was one who performed on the high bar at OSU basketball games. I have many found memories of my years with Fliptwisters. I was not absle to attend his retirement party, due to the fact that we had moved out of state. I wonder where he is now?

  2. Meg August 31, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    Wow. Thanks so much for commenting, Kathy! So good to hear from a fellow Fliptwister. I don’t know how old you are, but I don’t recognize your name, which means I’m probably a bit older than you. Our paths might have crossed at some point though. When I was in middle school, I taught some of the elementary kids at WE for Mr. M. Mostly I taught tumbling…I think on Saturday mornings.

    Hope your son enjoys the unicycle! Wish I still had mine. Thanks again, Kathy. Made my day.

  3. John Poffenberger November 16, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    I was part of the Fliptwisters from 1972 to 1976. I did gymnastics and rode the small and tall unicycles. We played for the Ohio State Basketball half time shows and we were also on the local news because we were so unique and very good. My sister Julie was also on the team. My best friend Steve Griffith was also on the team with me, unfortunatley he was killed in a auto accident in 1988. Fliptwisters was one of the most memorable times of my young life. Coach Morrow did one heck of a job organizing everything. P.S. I can still actually ride a unicycle.

  4. Nancy Schonitzer November 26, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    I was SO a member of The Flipwisters! Meg and I were just talking about it. I still have the group photo!! I think we all look the same..kind of. My hat’s off to Mr. Morrow for taking the time and interest in a bunch of kids from Worthington Estates Elementary School. Yes…and the 45’s!!! They still bring back memories when I hear them. What a wonderful time in my life filled with so many awsome memories! Mr.Morrow if you are still out there……Thank You So Much for spending the time, your time with us.

  5. Julie McBride Pischel February 8, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    I also with a Fliptwister (with you, Kathy and your wonderful sisters) and those were some of the best memories of my life. I have just posted a group photo on Facebook hoping to round up a few more alums. I tell my kids all the time about what great times those were. I remember the songs on the bus and how loud and fun it was.

  6. Sharon Goorey Starr March 4, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    I only WISH I had been a Fliptwister!! I still have Flip-envy!!! I remember how talented you guys were!! And Mr. M was a GREAT teacher. His dedication was UNBELIEVABLE!!

  7. Julia Franklin Linn April 13, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    I loved, loved, loved Fliptwisters! I started in 1969 I believe under the watchful eye of Coach Ron Morrow. I was a Spanish Flea and I rode the short and tall unicycles and tumbled. I think I still have my original red and white t-shirt! I remember going in early before school and for an hour or so after school as well (I do remember having to get home to watch Dark Shadows). We performed all over the community to pop music of the day….especially The Partridge Family. I just told Meg that Coach Morrow is in Clearwater, FL now (at least last time I checked) and his daughter Melinda lives across the street from me in Dunedin, FL. I didn’t know he was here until I was in Dillard’s some years back with my then 9 year old daughter. He came up to me and said, “I remember you when you looked like your daughter”. He remembered my name and everything! It was fun talking about the Fliptwister days :)

  8. Maureen Foley Regulinski July 13, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    I am astonished at the details you remember! I too was a “Black Light Dancer” A performance in the Worthingway Gymnasium still brings tingles of delight when I think about it. Didn’t we paint white stripes up our legs at one point? Opting later for socks because they had a better glow factor. It was our last vestige of childhood before moving into the uncharted waters of middle school… I was in awe of the Spanish Fleas. I did my flips and twists on the mini-tramps. Thanks for the sweet childhood memories.

    1. Meg July 21, 2009 at 8:09 pm

      Maureen! You remember the Heartbeats too! Hilarious in retrospect, isn’t it? Great to hear from you.

  9. Tim August 25, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    I never had the need coordination then to be a fliptwister. ( The amusing thing is I probably do now, but I stopped at the inline skates) I remember Coach Morrow. I attended Worthington Estates fro about 1/3 of my 5th grade year and my 6th grade. (1973-1974)

  10. Sherrie Hedden November 7, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Hey, I was a Fliptwister too, back in 5th in 6th grades in the early 70’s. Fun memories, I rode unicycle, in routines to the song Sweet Georgia Brown, and also was one of he riders with 3 others holding crossed bars, going in circles with the young tumblers doing headstands on a platform. Does anyone remember performing at the grand opening of the Worthington Shopping Mall, and the huge storm that roared through during performance? I had forgotten so much, until reading all these comments. Great memories, Coach M was terrific. I still have my unicycle, and can still ride it. Like riding a bike, you never forget. Fun times.

    1. Steve w April 27, 2013 at 12:21 am

      I remember the storm sherrie. What a great time we had! I can still ride like I did 40 years ago….almost

      1. Steve w April 27, 2013 at 12:27 am

        Pam, I remember in 6th or 7th grade, on our 8ft unicycle, you hanging from the pole doing your tricks while me and David g. Going in circles at the Ohio state basketball games…what a blast we had!

  11. Pam Watz-Hoadley November 25, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    No one can believe it when I tell Fliptwister stories and how everyone rode unicycles to school. I was just looking through our Fliptwister photo album (yes, my mom saved everything for us) and the memories shined. All the trips and tumbling in the parades was a life-building experience. My favorite 45 song (to tumble to) was “Love Rollercoaster.” Coach M was one of my best life mentors. A totally fun experience of our lives (my other two sisters were also part of this fantastic group). Would love to hear from othe alums!

  12. Kelly Houser Fort December 12, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    I was also a Fliptwister! I was not an original, though. I didn’t move there until 6th grade. I thought I landed in heaven with the unicycles and gymnastics. I remember I loved doing the half-time shows. One time I even met Archie Griffin at the game and got him to sign his autograph for me! I still ride my unicycle at school when I teach my unit on balance and motion. The kids are very impressed! I’m not as smooth at the turning as I used to be…or the riding for that matter. That was such a fantastic experience! I’m so glad I had the chance to join that group.

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  14. Kim Van Fleet Moloney March 5, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    OMGosh, I can’t believe I came across this post! I too was a Fliptwister 1979/80…..I just posted a picture on FB for “Throwback Thursday”. I have SOOO many great memories and most of them involve Coach Morrow….what he instilled in us kids back then and how he treated us unfortunately would probably not “fly” in today’s schools. I have been listening to Fox On the Run today which is one of the songs we use to “flip” to!! love you Coach Morrow!


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