Trampolining is not just for cute foxes in viral videos—it's a crazypants real sport that made its Olympic debut in 2000. As Canadian Karen Cockburn, the bronze medalist at those games, said after winning her medal, "A lot of people don't really know what trampoline is, they think it's a toy you jump on in the backyard."
Uh—that's correct. Growing up, you might've had a trampoline in your backyard, right next to your tacky above-ground pool. Maybe you could backflip and all the neighborhood kids thought you were the coolest. (Or maybe they just pretended to be nice to you to use your trampoline.) Little did you know, had you kept up this youthful pastime you might be bounding your way Olympic glory RIGHT NOW. Which is why we're breaking down Olympic trampoline for you.
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Trampoline is technically part of the gymnastics family, though they're sort of the black sheep; even rhythmic gymnastics gets invited over for Thanksgiving more often. The basics are the same: twisty-turny-flippy, but what makes these athletes so bonkers is that they're doing it twenty-five feet in the air. Sure, they can twist an ankle or whatever on the vault. But the trampoline is legitimately dangerous. (In 1999, an incredulous Katie Couric warned the Today show audience not to try this at home. She was interrupted by an animated Bela Karolyi, who insisted that kids should "Do it, do it, because it's fun, it is great…but with supervision.")
Olympic trampolining was the lifelong dream of a dude from Iowa named George Nissen, who along with his coach Larry Griswold is credited with inventing the first modern trampoline in the 1930s. They seemed like a pretty rad duo because Griswold's nickname was "The Diving Fool" and the first image that comes up of him on Google is one in which he's holding a pipe. Early on, it was more showmanship than athletics. For example, Nissen liked to jump on trampolines with kangaroos, as proved below by this cover of a book his daughter wrote. I have no idea why the kangaroo needed a trampoline, but I like it.
After creating the trampoline, Nissen had dreams of it becoming an Olympic sport, but it was mostly used as a training tool for athletes and astronauts. The nascent sport was originally referred to as "Rebound Tumbling," since "Trampoline" was trademarked by Nissen (el trampolin is Spanish for "diving board") and the apparatus was officially called the rebound tumbler. The trampoline eventually lost its trademark, and the sport took its name, which I think was the right call.
According to USA Gymnastics, the official governing body of trampolining in America since 1999, competitive trampoline began taking place in the United States around 1947 under AAU and NCAA auspices. In 1948 the first American championships were held, and because America was pretty much the only country doing competitive trampoline, we were obviously the best in the world. Unfortunately the sport started to lose some traction as injuries suffered during meets resulted in a slew of pesky lawsuits. (USA! USA!)
While the U.S. was busy filing tort claims, Europe began catching on, with the Soviet Union leading the way (typical). The sport had grown to such heights that the first World Championships in 1964 were held in the Royal Albert Hall in London. In 1967, the United States officially recognized trampoline as a sport in its own right, not as just another discipline under the gymnastics umbrella. In 1969, Judi Ford won the Miss America pageant, performing a trampoline routine for her talent portion of the competition. Toward the end of the 20th century, Japan and China decided that since they were good at all the other gymnastics events, they might as well get into trampolining too.
In 1994, both the International Gymnastics Federation and the International Trampolining Federation began a concerted effort to lobby the IOC, topped off by exhibition trampoline performances at the closing ceremony in Atlanta. A chance 1997 meeting in an airport lounge between trampolining's top lobbyist and the head of the Australian Olympic Committee sealed the deal. A month later, the IOC voted overwhelmingly to admit trampolining to the 2000 games. That same day, George Nissen purchased front row tickets to every session. He was there in Sydney, Australia (kangaroo?), to see his dream realized.
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How's this sport work? According to Wikipedia, 18 men and 18 women compete on a trampoline that is 4.28 meters by 2.4 meters. (The metric decimal stuff is so awkward because it's secretly an all-American 14 by 8 feet.) The event relies on judges for the results. Just like gymnastics, there are both difficulty and execution scores for each routine. According to the official Code of Points, competition works like this:
"The first routine in the Qualifying consists of 10 different elements, each with a minimum of 270 degree somersault rotation." So 10 tricks, and each one needs to contain at least a three-quarter flip.
"The second routine is a 10-element voluntary." Ten more tricks, to do whatever the fuck you want.
Only the top eight qualifiers, based on their combined scores, move on to the final round. Scores don't carry over from prelims. Finalists complete one voluntary routine. Then…someone wins. Hopefully no one dies.
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Who's good at this? Mostly due to 40 years of contributions from trampoline pioneer Dave Ross (who first took an interest in the sport as a physics student, and taught himself to both perform on and build trampolines), the Canadians are always competitive. Defending silver medalist Jason Burnett, coached by Ross, currently holds the record for highest degree of difficulty performed successfully at 18.0. (By comparison, the gold medalist at the 2008 men's competition completed a degree of difficulty of 16.2) Russians and Ukrainians dominated the first two Olympics, but China is all up in trampoline now, which means in a few years we should all probably just stop trying. (See also: Diving.) After all our early glory the Americans are now a little behind, but this year won our first World Cup medal since 1996.
Yet perhaps the very best part of Trampoline is the jargon. They have some cool words for moves. My three favorites:
Fliff – a double somersault with a twist. Short for "fliffis," naturally.
Triff - A twisting triple somersault. Like a fliff, just more of it. Presumably, the sport will get to quiffs soon enough.
Barani - A front flip with a half-twist, named after an Italian circus acrobat from the 19th century, of course.
Bottom line: These athletes are amazingly fearless. Their ability to do this sport without completely freaking out and flailing down to the "bed" epic belly flop style halfway through a double triff plus is awe-inducing. Dear X-Games Committee, add this to your lineup. This is too intense for the Olympics.
If that doesn't get you excited, watch world champ Dong Dong perform his routine, it's…insanity.