Blame E.T. and James Bond for his hobby. The Steven Spielberg movie turned a 12-year-old Rainer Spiegel on to the BMX bikes featured in its final chase scene, while Never Say Never Again had him aspiring to do motorcycle tricks.
“I was too young to ride a motorcycle, but I had seen people perform similar stunts on a BMX bike,” says Spiegel, a former lecturer in computer science at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is now a medical student at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. Freestyle BMX (bicycle motocross) involves performance and balancing tricks on specially designed bicycles.
Eager to do his own stunts, he asked his parents for a BMX bike. “As a child, I broke my elbow on a conventional bicycle, so my parents were worried, but I convinced them,” he says.
At 36, this IEEE student member is still hooked. He spent years developing a repertoire of tricks, entering his first competition at 16. Later, he participated in three BMX freestyle world championships and other international contests, at times capturing second, third, and ninth place. He has been featured in magazines and videos.
Spiegel’s not sure if he or a biker from Philadelphia was the first to do a “rolling undertaker” (performing a back wheelie with the front wheel in the air while moving the body underneath the front wheel from one side to the other). But he says he’s pretty sure he was the first to do the grasshopper-into-decade combo (spinning 180 degrees while hopping from a front wheelie to the frame and moving around the bike) and the pedal-to-elbow glide combo (hopping from the pedals to a front wheelie while catching the seat with the elbow).
Spiegel’s studies tie into cycling. His Ph.D. thesis was on human sequence, sensory-motor learning, and computational modeling. And his M.D. thesis is about posturographic measurement computational modeling, which assesses patients’ equilibrium and various therapies to treat vertigo, pharmaceutically and through body positioning.
“Performing tricks on a bike requires sequential learning,” he says, “like keeping my balance after whirling in circles!”
For as long as Francesca Maradei can remember, she couldn’t stop moving to music. Her parents took note, enrolling her in ballet classes when she was 6 at the Isabella Sisca International Dance Center in Castrovillari, her hometown in southern Italy. For the next 10 years, Maradei spent eight hours a week in ballet class completing the school curriculum and getting certified to teach ballet and dance professionally.
“Ballet is a very strict discipline. You have to practice regularly to keep your body well trained enough to master the techniques,” the IEEE senior member says. “At the end of each school year, we would perform in a professional theater. My favorite role was the Lilac Fairy from Sleeping Beauty. It was the first and last time I was a soloist.”
Maradei was also a star student at a science-focused high school. By 1987, she was at a crossroads, holding a ballet degree and graduating from that high school with honors.
“It was time to make a decision concerning my future,” she says. “Dance had become very important to me, but I had never considered the possibility of making ballet my profession.” In the end, her scientific bent led her to the electrical engineering department of Sapienza University, in Rome, where she is now an associate professor focusing on computational electromagnetics and electromagnetic compatibility.
“My parents weren’t so happy about my choice because, in their opinion, engineering was too difficult and not suitable for a girl,” she says. “But they were paying for my studies, and I wanted to show them that my choice was right. That’s why I gave up ballet and focused on engineering.”
She began taking dance classes again in 1997—this time for fun, not competition. She’s trying out other dance forms, she says. Next up are Caribbean dance and the Argentine tango.
“The most appealing thing is the way I feel while dancing,” she says. “When I follow the rhythm, I have no space for real-world thoughts.”
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