How trampolinists remain up in the air, even when their feet are on the ground, is supposed to be part of the deep dark mystique of their subculture. They have been called "introverted extroverts," "airborne eccentrics," "a different breed who don't like stereotyped activity."
Forget it. Trampolinists are the way they are because they somehow draw their personalities from the trampoline itself, and even when they are off it they have more bounce to the ounce than members of any other subculture going.
Try to settle an issue with a "tramp" by saying you'll flip him for it, and before you can say heads or tails he will have literally flipped himself, having done a standing somersault. This kind of attitude also prompted a bunch of tramps to ride the escalators at Neiman-Marcus—while doing handstands.
"The trampoline brings out our real personalities," says former world champion Wayne Miller. "Trampolinists ore different. We were in a gym once where the ceiling was too low for us to perform. So guys bounced up, did flips and pushed the ceiling tiles out with their feet. Another time we put on a clinic on a stage where a drape almost cut off the view of the audience when you got to the top of your bounce. I rigged things up with another guy and hung a rope behind the drape. When I went up high, I grabbed the rope and he pulled me up until I disappeared from sight."
June 7, 1970
It takes between 3.0 and 3.2 seconds for a tramp to go 20 feet up and 20 feet down—a period he refers to with a measure of poetic and temporal license as "four seconds of freedom." During that time he performs twists, turns and flips that are often so quick the eye cannot follow them. Even when he names the moves he has just executed, it is sometimes too much for the ear to follow. To wit: "I started with a triple twisting back, then an Arabian front, a fliffis, a baby triffis, a Barani, a Randy, a Rudolph, an Adolph, a half-in half-out, a kaboom and a gazip-gazap."
If it sounds as though trampolinists live close to ecstasy, that's fine with George Nissen, the inventor of the sport, for that is how he envisioned it from the outset. Nissen built his first trampoline in 1937 after graduating from the University of Iowa, where he was a three-time NCAA tumbling champion and an All-America diver. The first trampoline was a crude affair made out of slit-up innertubes, a canvas center and heavy ropes, but when Nissen took it to a YMCA summer camp, the kids became so captivated by it that they stopped swimming and began bouncing.
Even a beginner can enjoy trampolining because it has what Nissen calls "a low threshold of learning" that substantiates his Aw, Phooey Theory. This is another way of saying that anyone can quickly learn to bounce. And one doesn't have to, as Nissen puts it, "try to get on some difficult piece of equipment, fall off repeatedly and say, 'Aw, phooey!' " To demonstrate how easy it is—and to get some publicity—Nissen once rented a kangaroo for $150 a day and taught it how to bounce. It set him back $450. (Nissen could have rented another kangaroo for $50 a day, but the owner said that that one might punch him.)
Still, accidents happen, and in Germany last year five trampolinists were killed. In 1963, shortly after setting a world record of 16'8" in the pole vault, Brian Sternberg landed improperly on a trampoline and was paralyzed from the neck down. Most injuries come from what the AMA calls "acute flexion of the cervical spine" caused by landing on the head or back of the neck.
Two rules of the sport are that you must always have spotters—people who stand on or near the trampoline to prevent participants from bouncing off—and that you must always wear a safety belt when learning a new trick.
Some aspiring tramps never get out of the belt. This is because they lack a good kinesthetic sense—which tells a trampolinist where he is no matter how many twists and turns he has made.
A trampolinist's biggest fear is that of "getting lost" in the air. It rarely happens. What does happen now and then is that he will "perceive too much"—things like windows, the color of the walls, blondes, brunettes.
Nissen got his idea for the trampoline from circus and vaudeville acts in which performers rebounded off nets or mattresses. One of the most prominent was the comedian Joe E. Brown. In 1906 he had an act in which he would jump off one platform, bounce off a trampolinelike surface and land on the shoulders of his partner. In the 1920s Brown got lots of laughs by falling off the stage into the orchestra pit, only to land on his rebounding surface and bounce back on stage.
The trade name trampoline comes from the Spanish word for diving board—trampolin—and it is a name that has suffered much abuse. During the early years Nissen did all he could to embed his trademark in the public mind. Recalls Nissen: "People asked, 'How's the bouncing rig?' and I'd say, 'It's a trampoline. Trampoline. Trampoline."
Once he showed up at a rodeo, where he was to perform, and when people saw the trampoline lashed to the roof of his car they yelled, "Here's the fella with the starting gate." Then there was the time, after a long search for his trampoline in a freight office, that Nissen spotted it and then learned the reason no one else had was because "they all thought it was a cow stanchion."
Throughout the late '30s and early '40s people began hearing about the trampoline as Nissen put on 300 to 400 shows a year, mostly at school assemblies. While in the Navy in World War II he sold some top brass on using trampolines to help pilots with space orientation. Nissen himself wound up at St. Mary's (Calif.) Preflight School in charge of such a program, and it was there that trampolining was born as a sport.
After the war Nissen and his trampoline went to Europe, where he got a hard time from border guards when he tried to cross into Communist countries with a weird-looking, folded-up apparatus on top of his car. Nissen would explain that it was a trampoline. The guards would consult their dictionaries. "There is no such thing as a trampoline," they would tell him. Nissen would try sign language, pantomime. Before long the guards would decide that anyone foolish enough to risk playing with that silly-looking gizmo was harmless, and they would wave him across. Such fun and games are past. "They know what a trampoline is now," says Nissen, "and they just smile and wave us on."
There will probably always be those who can't resist asking if the trampoline is used for training elevator operators. And for those who feel they must ask Nissen if he is bothered by all the ups and downs in his business, he replies, "No, it's only the jerks that bother me."
In the late 1950s there was a hula-hoop type of fad for trampolining that left the countryside dotted with jumping centers. Mom, Pop and the kids would stop at these centers, and by the lime they left many needed medical care. Even nimble teen-agers learned that they were in for a hard landing when they found themselves in midair with a hamburger in one hand, a Coke in the other and their feet pointing skyward. Now, when Nissen wished people would forget his trademark, it seemed that it was all they could think of when they decided to sue. He has since virtually abandoned the trademark. Indeed, in 1959 the name of the sport was officially changed from trampolining to rebound tumbling. There is no record of the first intercollegiate match, but NCAA and AAU championships began in 1948 and the world championships in 1964.
Surprisingly, the Russians credit Nissen with inventing the sport. They do, however, claim to have devised an offshoot in which two contestants try to put a ball through a horizontal, basketball-type net suspended above the trampoline surface. Nissen, who devised this sport in 1958, calls it spaceball, the Soviets cosmoball.
Astronaut Scott Carpenter was one of Nissen's pupils at St. Mary's, and shortly before he took off in Aurora 7 he asked Nissen for a trampoline to aid him in space orientation. Other astronauts have used trampolines in their training and so did Cosmonaut Aleksi Archipovich Leonov, the first man to walk in space.
"When bouncing on a trampoline," says Nissen, "there is an instant of weightlessness at the very top of the bounce. When you bounce up, you're a free body, which means you rotate around your own center of gravity. It's the next thing to actually being out in space."
Fittingly, the U.S. has dominated the sport, having won all five men's and women's individual world championships. In synchronized competition, in which two tramps bounce simultaneously, the U.S. has won two of four men's titles, two of three women's. But the Europeans are improving rapidly, and U.S. dominance could be nearing an end.
Five-time world champion Judy Wills has dropped out, but Wayne Miller is back after some harrowing experiences. In 1966 Miller, then a sophomore at Michigan, won all four big trampoline competitions: AAU, NCAA, world and the international Schuster Cup. Then Miller's high life had a comedown.
"In '67 I tore tendons in my ankle," he says. "I needed a motorized wheelchair to get around campus, and I did all right until I got stuck in a snow bank. Because I couldn't compete, I became depressed. My weight went up, so I took diet pills. But I had no real purpose. I was meandering through life. I kept on popping pills. I took 10, 20 a day. People tell me about things I did, but a lot of them I don't remember. I was speeding through life. I invested in a bar and helped run it. That did me no good. Things got worse."
In April 1968 Miller was arrested for forging a prescription in his home town of Lafayette, La., where he had gone after dropping out of school.
"I went to a shrink," Miller says. "He wanted me to get off pills gradually. I said no, that I wanted to stop right then. On Aug. 15, 1968 I quit pills. I haven't had one since. Now I'm docile."
Off pills, Miller zoomed from 125 pounds to 197 within six months. "I became the fat boy, the funny boy, the joker, the jolly," he says.
In 1969 Miller returned to Michigan and got his weight down to a normal 150. "The first time I competed was at the Midwest Open last December," he says. "That was the first time most people in the sport had seen me since my troubles. It was exhilarating to find out they were pulling for me. I won. I cried."
A few weeks later, following his graduation from Michigan, Miller returned to Lafayette and began work on his master's in physical education at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He also sought the help of Jeff Hennessy, the coach who has made USL a trampoline power and who coached him to two senior men's AAU titles while he was in high school. The new, docile Wayne Miller is now soaring as high as anyone in the sport—he gets 20 feet up—and has a good chance to win another world title on June 19 in Bern, Switzerland.
Another highly proficient trampolinist from Southwestern Louisiana is Jim Yongue (pronounced young). He has never won a major title, but his talent was so exceptional that everyone knew he would before long. At least that was the opinion until last Oct. 15, when he was accidentally shot in the head by his roommate while practicing quick-draw. The bullet went in over his left eye and lodged in his brain near his left ear.
"When they operated on Jimmy they removed a portion of his brain the size of a silver dollar and about twice the thickness," says Hennessy. "Five days after surgery, though, he was out of intensive care, and 12 days after that he was watching us work out. Less than two months after the accident he was working out himself. In the middle of December we put on a show at the half-time of our first home basketball game. Nobody knew Jimmy would be jumping. There was nothing but a thin layer of skin over the wound, but his doctor and father felt it would be O.K. for him to perform. I always do the announcing at these programs but when Jimmy got out there I couldn't think of a thing to say."
Yongue, who now has a steel plate in his head, attends special classes in New Orleans, where he is relearning how to read.
Still another typical trampolinist is Billy Popiwenko, who is of Ukrainian descent, grew up in Australia and is now a freshman at the University of Hawaii. "I'm terribly fidgety," he says. "I can't sit still to do things like playing cards. When I visit someone, it's usually quick: open the door, say 'Hi,' say 'Bye,' close the door."
One of the few times Popiwenko sits still is when he is figuring out a new bounce routine. To do this he jots down 10 tricks and their degrees of difficulty as he envisions the flight pattern of each. "You try to get a rhythm, a flow from one trick to the next," Billy says.
Trampolinists are allowed all the bounces they need to get ready, then between 10 and 12 after they have done their first trick. When they have begun their routine, each bounce must be followed by another trick. Four judges score the contestants on form, execution and degree of difficulty, as in diving. The most difficult trick is a Miller (named after Wayne Miller—it's a triple twisting double-back somersault).
Since the beginning, trampolining was a coed sport. Best of the girls is Judy Wills. Judy, also a two-time world tumbling titlist, was briefly coached by Hennessy while in high school and later by Herb Vogel at Southern Illinois. She is not defending her title this year because of a back injury and because she nearly sliced off a thumb while climbing a mountain near Denver.
Replacing her as AAU champion and winner of the world team tryouts is Renée Ransom of Memphis, a perfect example of Nissen's "low threshold" concept. She is a 13-year-old seventh-grader, is five feet tall, weighs 107 pounds and could listen to Glen Campbell sing all day. Renée broke her ankle on the trampoline last year, but within a month was doing a full routine with a cast on her leg.
"Last year Renée wanted a horse," her father says, "and I told her that if she won the junior Olympic diving I'd buy her one. 'What if I finish second?' she wanted to know. 'Then you get a mule,' I said. She came in second, so I told her, 'Let's get your mule.' Then I took her out and showed her what I had bought: a golden palomino."
Renée might have been only second best this year if Judi Ford hadn't been named Miss America and been obliged to give up the sport because of her many commitments. Judi, now a sophomore at Illinois, was at Southwestern Louisiana last year and was second to Judy Wills in the AAU championships.
Recalls Hennessy: "At halftime of a basketball game two years ago our team put on a trampoline exhibition. More than 8,000 people were on hand, and when they saw Judi they went berserk. The local radio announcer, who was supposed to give the halftime statistics to his listeners, forgot about them, and the station had to fill in with music. The sports information director from our school was supposed to go to the team's dressing room, but decided to skip it. The concessionaire told me, 'I'm supposed to make my money at halftime, but nobody comes because they're watching that girl.' "
"Girls are hard workers," says Earle Duggan, coach of the all-girl Des Moines Dynamics. "I have one girl—Mary McDonald—who didn't have a day off from training in 27 months. My girls work out 25 hours a week and the weakest one can do 27 chin-ups."
No one knows more about the tribulations—financial and otherwise—of trampolining than Jeff Hennessy. He gets no salary for coaching trampoline and has often reached into his own pocket to pay bills incurred by the sport, no small feat for a man with a wife and three children. In any case, Hennessy is a man of deep sincerity, and there are those who feel that if it had not been for him, trampolining in this country might be extinct.
Five years ago the AAU gymnastics committee became disenchanted with trampolining. "But," says Vannie Edwards, coach at Southeastern Louisiana, "Jeff did a great job of selling the sport to them and got it back on the program."
Money has always been a problem. "I've got a bill for $580 from our trip to the NCAAs," Hennessy said the other day, "and I have no idea how to pay it. Before the world championships one year I was $900 short. I went to a bank and explained the situation. A bank official told me, 'Just sign a note for a $900 loan, and I'll raise the money while you're away and it won't cost you a penny." When I got back he told me he hadn't had enough time yet, but that he had raised $300 so far. Next day I picked up the newspaper and I knew I was in trouble—this guy had been arrested for embezzling $240,000."
The cost of sending the U.S. team to Bern is $7,000. It had been hoped that most of this amount would come from ticket sales at the final trials. Alas, only 300 people showed up. "I'm sick," Hennessy said as he scanned the empty seats. "It's too bad Judi Ford couldn't have been here."
Assorted fund-raising activities—selling emblems, program sales, little kids going from door to door asking for donations—brought the total take up to $2,000. Still, a $5,000 deficit isn't enough to keep Hennessy down. He called George Nissen, who said he had a little item that might bring in some money: $3,500 worth of yo-yos. Thus for the past month trampolinists have been peddling yo-yos. Even for "a different breed who don't like stereotyped activity," this has to be the most offbeat method ever devised for paying one's way to Switzerland.