Sports

The Bizarre and Utterly American History of Trampolining, the Olympics Most Airborne Sport

Of course this all started at the circus.
IMAGE RONALD MARTINEZ / GETTY IMAGES
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Have you ever thought to yourself: “Gymnastics seems neat, but is there any way I could do some of the same moves except more extreme and while basically flying?” If you answered yes, I’ve got the perfect sport for you: Trampolining.

Behold the Olympics’ most airborne sport. Routinely soaring over 35 feet in the air, Olympic trampolinists must have the guts of an acrobat, the body awareness of a diver, and the strength and flexibility of a gymnast to corkscrew through the air as gracefully as they do. Despite the springy, soft landing of a trampoline, it’s a high-risk sport that only the most determined and imaginative athletes pursue.

One such legendary athlete was George Nissen, who, in addition to being a gymnast, acrobat, and diver, also invented the trampoline and lobbied relentlessly for its inclusion in the Olympics. In fact, he witnessed it happen at the Sydney Games in 2000.

Naturally, Nissen was inspired to create the trampoline after a trip to the circus. While watching acrobats drop into the safety nets below, he wondered if there was a way for them to rebound instead so they could keep doing tricks. The native Iowan got to work, at first experimenting with stretching canvas across wood beams. His first prototype was constructed out of canvas and the rubber from the inside of a tire.

Upon graduating from the University of Iowa in 1937, Nissen and two classmates formed a traveling acrobatic troupe called the Three Leonardos. While on tour in Mexico City, Nissen decided to name his device the trampoline, after el trampolín, the Spanish word for springboard. He was granted a patent for his invention in 1945 and after that was off to the races—spreading the gospel of the trampoline to anyone who would listen.

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The original patent for the trampoline filed by George Nissen in 1945.

Photo by UNITED STATES PATENT OFFICE/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Much of the trampoline’s early success is due to World War II. The American military was Nissen’s first major customer. The Air Force used the trampoline as a training device for pilots to simulate the disorienting effect of difficult air maneuvers. It helped teach them how to reorient themselves and control their movements.

Brenner’s relationship with the military grew to include the space program, thanks to his chance meeting with a former pilot and future Mercury 7 astronaut at the tail end of WWII. Scott Carpenter had gone through trampoline training during the war and lept at the opportunity to keep working with Brenner. Together they incorporated the trampoline into space training at NASA and developed a game called Spaceball which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

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Around the same time, Nissen and his wife (also an acrobat) began touring — with their baby and a folding trampoline. When he wasn’t performing, Brenner promoted his product. His relentless sales pitch paid off. By the late 1950s, trampolines were an American sensation, like a Skip-It for the Boomer generation. Even adults got in on the craze after Brenner touted the trampoline’s health benefits. Then-vice president Richard Nixon, Yul Brynner, and King Farouk of Egypt all purchased and supposedly exercised on the trampoline.

Photo by BETTMANN/ GETTY IMAGES.

The first-ever Trampoline World Championships were held in London in 1964, but soon after, enthusiasm for the sport began to cool. Too many kids were suffering concussions and getting injured. Brenner blamed inadequate training. Others thought the trampoline was inherently dangerous. Either way, it took almost another 40 years for the trampoline to be embraced by the Olympics.

Of course, once it was, spectators were quick to catch onto its appeal. Trampolinists shoot into the sky, their bodies straight as pencils, then cascade through a series of mind-boggling somersaults on their way down. They ball up and straighten out over a dozen times, all while keeping their eyes glued to the red cross on the springy mat splayed out beneath them. That red cross? It marks the jumping zone, where the athletes need to land to achieve a strong bounce that will spring them into their next skill. To be declared the winner, a trampolinist must perform the most difficult skills, in perfect form, at the highest heights.

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Despite its American origins, the Canadians and the Chinese have dominated the trampoline at the Olympics. 

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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About The Author
Abigail Covington
Abigail Covington is a journalist and cultural critic based in Brooklyn, New York but originally from North Carolina, whose work has appeared in Slate, The Nation, Oxford American, and Pitchfork.
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