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Published in frankie 33 (January/February 2010)

Marie-Christin Grosse-Venhaus: unicycle

German high school exchange student Marie-Christin Grosse-Venhaus met her Canberran host father in 2008 in Denmark at UNICON, the world unicycling championships. Marie already knew she would be spending a year in Australia, so they kept in touch. "Then a day before Christmas I got an email from him saying they had decided to be my host family," she says. "It was perfect."

Marie first tried unicycling when she was seven. "I lived in a really small town, more like a village, and our trainer lived next-door," she says. "Every kid did unicycling." She gave it up when she changed primary schools, but took it up again in Year 6 after some friends showed an interest in the sport.

In April Marie’s host-dad took her to Wollongong for UniNats, the Australian national unicycle championships. "I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to take part because I’m not Australian," she says. "But they were really happy to have me here. I met so many nice people."

It’s a good thing the Aussies were so welcoming, because Marie went on to take first place in 16 events. "I wasn’t bad in Germany," she says, "almost top 20. I’d looked at some times from other UniNats and thought, maybe I’d be really good, but I didn’t expect to win all the disciplines."

Some of the competitions she had never tried before, such as riding backwards and muni, otherwise known as mountain unicycling. "I did that for the first time in Australia," Marie explains. "It’s like a track race. It’s really hard but it was amazing. You ride through water and the hills and forests and stuff."

While she does well in timed competitions, Marie’s event of choice is freestyle. Competitors spend up to a year planning a three-minute performance set to music. "You also have to dress up," Marie says. "It’s pretty hard to find a new theme that hasn’t been used in a few years. You can compare it to ice skating. It’s kind of the same because they do racing and freestyle performances, and that’s like the unicycle."

Naturally, any hobby you can fall off comes with its share of injuries. "I’ve never had a broken leg or arm, but I have heaps of bruises all the time. I mostly can’t remember where they come from, but then I think, oh yeah, I did that trick. You just hurt yourself. You get used to it. I’ve got lots of scars on my legs. I couldn’t be a model!"

Marie advises the uni-curious not to splash out on an expensive unicycle unless they want to go pro. "A cheap one does the job," she says. "Sometimes you can buy them at Aldi. You can get anything there."

Belinda Lush: Highland dancing

Of all the Highland dancing competitions Belinda Lush has entered, including the 12 championships she's won in Western Australia alone, her favourite memory is of coming fourth place. A spot in the top six in the Champion of Champions Championship is the Holy Grail for ambitious Aussie Highland dancers, who get to compete on home turf with people from all over the world. Belinda’s placing in the 2008 event made her the country’s top female dancer of the year. "It’s the most ridiculous name on the planet," she says. "But coming fourth to three amazing dancers, that was really cool."

Belinda has been dancing since the age of five and won her first championship when she was nine. Now, at 26, she’s thinking about her retirement plan. "A lot of girls retire around 22 or 23," she says. "I don’t see myself competing for very much longer because my body’s very tired. Training’s a lot harder on your body as you get older. My body is telling me it’s almost had enough."

But that doesn’t mean an end to the Highland fling. "I will never, ever give up dancing. I think I would need therapy if I stopped dancing," she laughs. She will continue to perform, as she has done in tattoos around the world, including Edinburgh, Novia Scotia and… Oman.

"That was really interesting," Belinda says. In 2005 His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said hosted a military tattoo in celebration of his 65th birthday and 35th year on the throne. He invited 64 Australian Highland dancers and treated them to luxury accommodation and spending money. They were the only international performers.

"We thought, there must be a twist to this – perhaps all the women are going to be part of his harem or something," Belinda laughs. "It was absolutely spectacular. A complete culture shock. We always had to be escorted by a male. We always made sure our shoulders and knees were covered but we weren’t covered head to toe like the women are over there. Sixty Australian dancers – young, gorgeous-looking females – we caused quite a stir. We literally stopped traffic crossing the road."

Next on the cards for Belinda is the 2010 season of So You Think You Can Dance?. She made it into the top 100 last season on the strength of her Highland, but a broken foot put her out of the game. The judges have kept a spot for her in the upcoming show. Eliminating herself was devastating, she says, but apparently not titillating enough for the final cut of the program. "I think it was because I didn’t cry, faint or hyperventilate. I didn’t show a few tears or scream and stamp my feet."

Clay ‘Bangers’ Connolly: air guitar

"If everyone in the world played air guitar at once, they wouldn’t be able to hold their guns. We’d have world peace."

So says Clay ‘Bangers’ Connolly, three-time winner of the Australian Air Guitar Championships. The former circus acrobat, pro-rollerblader and Dream World man-in-a-character-suit also came second place in the 2006 Air Guitar World Championships in Finland and eighth in 2008, but news of his brother’s untimely death knocked him for six at the 2009 event, where he came 13th out of 20 contestants. "They judge you by charisma, showmanship, technique and airness, but no one can define what airness is," he explains. "I think I just lost that bit of airness, finding out that my brother had passed away."

Clay’s air guitar career began in 2003 when, on a whim and a few beers, he entered a contest at a music festival. He was last to be called up and he "just went crazy - I blitzed it." His winning performance of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ landed him a spot in the qualifiers, and he went on to win the Victorian state finals. He’s competed every year since. "I just go out there and have a good night," he says. "You know, release the demons."

His circus skills give him an edge over the competition. In the early days some of his favourite moves were stage diving onto an empty floor ("it was a good crowd pleaser, that one"), jumping in the air and landing flat on his back ("that was a killer") and throwing his guitar in the air, doing a backflip, and then catching it and playing on.

These days, though, he tries to keep his feet on the ground. "I’m over the backflips," he says, "plus I’m getting a bit fragile." He’s broken a couple of toes, and one backflip attempt on a wet floor led to a dislocated thumb. Other moves are just for laughs – his 'lead' fell out in the middle of his 2006 act, complete with sound effects as he plugged it back in.

With no plans to retire, Clay hopes to make it through the 2010 nationals and back to Finland for another crack at the world title. When he does give up performing he’d like to join the judging panel. "If I’m a judge, it’ll be top points to the Aussie no matter what he does," he reckons. "We haven’t won yet, and we’re due for a win."

Lina Chegodaev: button accordion

In order to succeed as a button accordion player, you need drive, motivation, and "someone in your family to push you," says Lina Chegodaev. In Lina’s case it was her half-Russian, half-Chinese father, who started teaching her the instrument when she was seven.

"My Dad loved the accordion," she says. "He taught himself to play. He wanted to teach me and my sister, but she couldn’t do it. I stuck with it even though I absolutely hated it, because I was quite terrified of my dad! Now I think I couldn’t live without it."

Lina started formal lessons at the age of 13 and recently completed a Bachelor of Music at the Australian Institute of Music. She has won state and national button accordion competitions and, in 2007, won the Australasian Championships. "That was a big win," she says. "The competitor from New Zealand was amazing and I thought he would win because he played more difficult songs. It was a bit of a surprise when I won. I was shocked."

As well as playing in competitions, Lina also has a rigorous performance schedule. She is a soloist with the Sydney Balalaika Orchestra and has performed with them at the Sydney Opera House, numerous ethnic folk festivals and clubs, and even the Russian equivalent of The Morning Show. "I’ve been with them since 2001, and every Tuesday we get together and practice," Lina says. "So every week without fail I get practice so my fingers don’t get too rough. They slow down if you don’t practice for weeks."

Lina owns seven accordions, one of which previously belonged to world champion Vladislav Pligovka. "I had a Jupiter, which is the best button accordion you can get," Lina explains. "My Mum went to Russia to get it for me. But you need to tune them every two to three years, and it was going out of whack. No one in Australia can tune the accordion. I didn’t trust anyone with it and it was too expensive to go back overseas." The world champ was in Australia at the time, and traded his Zonta for her Jupiter and a few thousand euros. "And now I have the world champion accordion in my house."

These days Lina is more focused on performing and teaching than on competing. While many players drift away from the instrument as they get older, Lina hopes to remain active within the accordion community. "My dad passed away in 2004 and I think I do it for him," she says. ‘I know he didn’t see me graduate but I think he would have been proud of everything I’ve accomplished."