Nati Grinkrug, a Palo Alto High School senior better known as “the unicycle kid” on campus, is no stranger to stares and double takes.
It makes sense. Surrounded by his peers’ two or four wheeled rides, Grinkrug’s “preferred mode of transportation” — a singular 29-inch wheel — certainly stands out.
“He really likes things that are special, that are not the norm,” mom Julia Grinkrug said. “I think that it really gets him excited about something and really motivates him in a way. He has some kind of internal compass of what’s interesting for him.”
Grinkrug has unicycled for over five years, beginning in middle school when he was tasked with designing his own project in class. The project, which initially involved making a vehicle with a few more wheels and a little more speed, eventually evolved to a simpler task: building a unicycle.
“At first I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make this super cool, motorized tricycle,’” Grinkrug said. “And obviously that was way over my head as a sixth grader, so my dad narrowed it down to two wheels and I wanted to make a bicycle. And then he said, ‘You know what, let’s start with one [wheel].’”
After that, Grinkrug learned how to ride the unicycle to spare it from a tragic fate of “lying around, doing absolutely nothing,” he said. He was successful after practicing for about half an hour each day for two weeks.
“You get on and you fall off, over and over and over again until your body just figures it out,” Grinkrug said. “And then you’ve got it for life, pretty much. It’s like learning to bike, I guess.”
Now, he said the only reason he rides the unicycle is out of spite.
“I just do it out of spite to all the people who are like ‘Why? Just ride a bike,’” he said.
But the unicycle barely hits the surface of Grinkrug’s rather eclectic nature, which is better marked by his “obsession” over his hobbies and love for proving people wrong.
Friend and Paly senior Hunter DeLoche met Grinkrug in Paly’s jazz band class, where they immediately bonded over the type of music they enjoyed playing. Soon after, the two rounded up a few more friends and created their very own band.
“We’ve had some switching of the members of the band since then,” DeLoche said. “But we have always stayed constant because we like working together a lot.”
Grinkrug said the band — listed on Spotify as Amnesium, but transitioning to the name Blue Sky on Mars — plays “pop-alternative” music similar to the bands Pink Floyd, Radiohead and Mars Volta. The band has since released one concept album, which follows an imaginary individual named Atlus Corpus’s struggles with mental health.
“The story is a bit unhinged,” Grinkrug said. “The music is slightly less unhinged.”
At this point in our interview, Grinkrug screen shared his computer screen over Zoom, showing me a photo of his editing setup. He pointed out his two large studio monitors — which he noted he was hearing me from — and walked me through his editing process on Ableton Live, a program he says is prominently used by electronic music producers.
“You really need to figure out ways to make things fit with each other while they don’t mask another instrument,” he said. “So it’s like a puzzle, if you will. Almost like Tetris, but with sound.”
He said he’s always been into music. Like most other kids, Grinkrug’s parents signed him up for piano lessons at a young age. But it was only when he began learning music theory that he really got into it, he said.
“I kind of got sick of just straight up learning how to play piano, again, as many children do,” Grinkrug said.
The album was a catalyst for the self-proclaimed “audio science nerd.” After watching hours of YouTube tutorials, Grinkrug said producing the album was his first hands-on project in audio technology.
“It’s not terrible, but there’s a lot of obvious room for improvement,” Grinkrug said. “It’s definitely something to work on and I’m not a professional producer or mix engineer so it’s to be expected, but I tried.”
DeLoche said that Grinkrug’s attention to detail and analytical personality were some of the first things he noticed about Grinkrug — both in aspects of his life like his love for math, and band-related endeavors.
“Once he was actually doing the project, he would spend hours refining it and making sure it turned out really well,” DeLoche said.
DeLoche recalled how Grinkrug once spent seven hours learning about how loudness works, staying up until 3 a.m. researching the matter in order to produce their songs to their full potential.
That determination is present far beyond Grinkrug’s musical endeavors.
At the age of seven, Grinkrug began sailing in his hometown of Haifa, Israel. He began on a boat called the Optimist, which he described as “basically bumper boats.”
“They’re garbage but I guess they’re good for learning on, so there you go,” Grinkrug said.
Eventually, Grinkrug leveled up and learned more complex racing techniques, which meant, for one, that he didn’t have to sail the Optimist anymore.
“Generally, what people think of when they think of sailing is, you know, a bunch of white guys on a yacht, drinking beer and kind of not really doing anything,” Grinkrug said. “That’s boating. I don’t associate myself with those people. Boating is a leisure thing. Sailing is more of, I don’t know if you’d call it an extreme sport, but it’s definitely physically intensive.”
It’s clear that Grinkrug has defended this position before. One by one he checks off the boxes of what he believes constitutes a sport: physical exercise, competition and tactical decisions. Physically, he said, sailing works out legs, core and arms. Competition-wise, sailors compete against each other in regattas; Grinkrug said he’s been sailing competitively since he was 10 or 11 years old. And strategically, he said, sailors must learn to use the rules to their advantage.
“You can screw people over with some of the rules,” he said. “Some of them are really fun, like rule 17 I particularly like because nobody seems to understand it fully, at least in the lower to mid levels of sailing.”
Now, Grinkrug mainly sticks to coaching sailing. He considers himself competent, he said, but insists that he’s by no means a “good sailor.” He’s got friends competing on the international level, though, so his definition of “good” may be a little skewed.
“I definitely don’t see myself as professional or whatever,” Grinkrug said. “But it’s a very complex and nuanced sport.”
Grinkrug said he hopes to continue his hobbies throughout college, especially experimenting with audio technology. As for the unicycle? Mrs. Grinkrug said she suspects he’ll continue to ride the unicycle, too.
“He’s really one of these self made people that chooses what’s important and interesting to him and [he’s] doing everything that is needed to fulfill his own standard, not going with the normal,” Mrs. Grinkrug said.