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The Importance of Understanding History

Photo courtesy of - Thanks Dagmar!

We are currently in Ollerup Gymnstik, which is one of the leading acrobatic schools in Denmark. Trish and I are providing training and lectures about sports marketing; as well as focusing on the technical aspect of trampoline. It is very interesting to see that during our first lecture yesterday at a boarding school of young gymnastics and tumbling students, not one person knew who George Nissen was. My response, "I'm not surprised." And I say this because each clinic or workshop we give we ask this question and the results are always the same. It boggles my mind because it defies common sense to not understand the history of your sport.

Imagine a stock market analyst. He or she has to look back at the history of the business and then tell everyone what is going on and where to put their money. That is no different then an athlete committing to a sport. If you do not know how the sport was created how can you possibly predict where it will go and if it is worth doing the sport? How do you know if the sport is about to implode and all that time will be wasted? How do you know if it is best to start your own gym club or partner with the government in some way? You do not know what to do if you do not know where it all started. You can then see the big picture and make a calculated estimation of how to act rather then randomly doing things. Below is a brief history of trampoline as a whole. Dates are always a point of argument so I am sorry if I am off by a year or two but the concept remains valid.

In 1795, Hughes Circus was the first to use the word “Trampoline” in their advertisement “Le Grand Saut Du Trampoline” which started a 50 year rumour that there was a man actually named “Du Trampoline”. This of course was not the case. Even recent books still make this mistake. Saut Du Trampoline was the name of a rebounding act. In 1893 Max Franklin Troup was the first group of performers to actually use a table-like trampoline. They called it a spring board and in spanish “Trampolina” means springboard. This is a big point. Modern Trampoline started with jumping over animals from a spring board.

In 1874 the first recorded triple front flip was done by John Worland who was well recognized within the community. He did this over 5 horses in front of hundreds of people. The “Trampoline” he was using would not be recognized by today’s standards but was called a “Batoute”. It is hypothesized that it was taken from the Russian word for Trampoline,“Batut”. It resembled more of a springboard then anything. Trampoline and Springboard were used interchangeably at this point in history and was not distinguished as different apparatus until much later.

The Trampoline was known as an apparatus that any performer would use to bound and leap into the air with. Before the flying trapeze was invented the most important act of a circus was called “Leaping” and every circus that was well known would have this incorporated in their show. The performer would run down a ramp and hit the “Trampoline” which looked like a diving board, and jump over people, animals and other objects. Some accounts of Leaping date back to the 1600’s but on a smaller scale. John Bill Ricketts founded the first American Circus after the American Revolution. He was the first American known to have Leaping in his circus. George Washington was known to come to the shows often and was good friends with Ricketts.

Tom King, in 1856 was the first Leaper to be called a Champion after he leaped 31 feet and 7 inches. He would perform doubles over people and horses regularly and even was thought to have tried a triple. Others tried a triple but many died in the process. Over 20 deaths from leaping have been recorded.

The danger caused the focus from difficulty to switch to height and soon it was not important how many flips you could do, but how many animals or people you could do it over. Bob Stickney was known for a tight fitting costume and for his grace in the air beyond the other leapers. Jules Leotard was the man who is commonly known for introducing the tight fitting costume that Stickney wore hence the reason it is called a leotard today. How many of your athletes know why Leotards are worn in gymnastics or what caused them to be so widespread?

The ultimate leaping highlight was in 1881 from Frank Gardner did a double front flip over 9 elephants and a single flip over 12 of them. Some modern-day circus’s have tried to repeat these feats with no success.

Since then there were several acts that started using the trampoline as more of a flat table apparatus such as Flying Fishers, The Walloons and Tommy Gordon. Walter Lindsley in 1928 was the first to do a half turn on the final flip of a double flip called a “Fliffis”.

At this point George Nissen and Larry Griswold were getting the idea to create a bouncy object that allowed humans to fly. The exact mechanism of the invention is a long story and can be explained another time. They worked at the university of Iowa for several years creating the invention and once it was complete it had brought a new dimension to human flight.

With this new invention any Trampoline shows were popping up around this time such as Paul and Paulette, and the “Bell Hop and the French Maid” which set the stage for the modern trampoline shows you see today . Not many female groups were getting publicity but there was an exception; Dee Ann Schwartz and Marge Nelson. Their act combined beauty, real trampoline skill and comedy in a way that was not previously as successful by females.

Trampolinists began to associate more with gymnasts and other performers in the circus in places such as Muscle Beach California which is known to be the spark of the physical fitness BOOM in USA starting in 1934. By the 1950’s trampolinists and gymnasts would conjugate together as friends.

Personally I know several gymnasts that are retired now that use to go to Muscle Beach in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when it was known as a huge social gathering. It was not a competition to these performers, but a way to test your strength and skill against other friends in a motivating environment. Slightly different from what we see today. Does not that beg the question as to why there is such a divide between trampolinists and gymnasts?

Larry Griswold was known to have been a huge contributor to bridging trampoline shows to the actual sport of trampoline that you see now. He was also a great showman and created an act that mixed a diving board with a trampoline and it toured for hundreds of shows around the world. A performer on Britain’s Got Talent in 2015 performed a variation of Larry’s act and it got amazing reviews on social media even by today’s standards. It is funny because many of the comments were discussing how unique the show was and how different it was. It was just a recreation of Larry's shows. Who knew :p

Larry worked at the Iowa State University and created the Iowa Circus in the 1930’s and wanted to put a trampoline in the Circus. There were no manufacturers around at this time so he made his own. On the Iowa gymnastics team, there was a man named George Nissen who was the national tumbling champion three times as well as an expert diver.

Nissen saw that trampoline had a legitimate place in the education system as well as the navy and in later years, with Nasa, developing spacial awareness with astronauts. Larry and George teamed up and manufactured and standardized the trampoline. Larry and George had different view points and split up and the Nissen Corporation was created which was the first trampoline Manufacturer in the world. Saint Louis YMCA was the first customer.

Nissen’s big break came because WW2 was right around the corner and the Navy saw that trampoline training was a great tool for pilots in their training program. Soon all the naval bases around North America had trampolines and Nissen was doing very well. It is even reported that a few aircraft carriers had trampolines on them in WW2 thanks to Nissen.

After WW2 trampolines were starting to get very well known around the USA and boys clubs across the nation started buying them. This initiated the need for the first ever official trampoline competition on April 28, 1946 in the Dallas Athletic Club. The following year trampoline was included in the American Athletic Union (AAU) Gymnastics Nationals for the first time ever. Yes, Trampoline use to be part of gymnastics in 1946.

In 1948 the first NCAA University trampoline competition took place. In 1950 the first ever European Competition took place and it is easy to see that trampoline was taking off. In 1955 Trampoline joined the Pan Am Games for the first time where Switzerland and Germany started their own trampoline teams during this period.In 1959 the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG) recognized trampoline as a special event followed by the first trampoline federation in Scotland. Many other countries were jumping on this new sport such as Japan, New Zealand, Great Britain, Switzerland and even South Africa.

In 1964 first World Championships were held in Texas. At this point there were no routines or set parameters to win. The competitions were held as a man to man double elimination format throughout the beginning of the birth of the sport. Dan Milman was the first ever World Champion at Trampoline and went on to write a book called the “Peaceful Warrior”. Currently he is traveling the world giving speeches about his philosophy. I have had a few chances to speak to Dan and his philosophy about jumping was more inline with mine compared to the other competitors of today. The Good Ol’ Days.

Since then the sport of trampoline grew and eventually school-boards began to bring in trampoline as a part of the standardized program. There were even trampoline parks in the 60’s that closely resemble trampoline parks now popping up in 2004. After a large amount of injuries and a handful of lawsuits the school boards started to get rid of trampoline because inevitably the school-board had to pay for the damages. This started the decline of the education system and eventually led to the school board we see in the modern day.

There is more treachery a foot. In 1964 Title IX was a government legislation passed during the rising of female rights. This is post war and now women were on the rise and wanted equality. Of course that is completely fair and the USA decided to cut most of the male gymnastics and trampoline programs that were known to be very popular at the time because the universities and colleges had to make room for more female sports. This is one of the leading contributors to why female gymnastics is known to be the most popular out of all disciplines. It is interesting that the veterans of the sport have indicated to me that men were the ones who created the sport but it was taken over by women during this period. The women were known to be "less committed" as some have told me. Due to regulations women took over the sport and eventually trampoline had to move to the private sector where it remains today. Many have told me that Title IX was just one factor but it was one of the leading factors. This is not to say that it is good or bad but it is a very crucial turning point for the trampoline world.

Now trampoline manufacturers began to emerge and soon trampolines were found in backyards across North America. This is where they stayed because the media was giving trampolines a bad reputation due to a few injuries in the school board and some political struggles. Soon the only places someone could do trampoline was in their own backyard or at a private training facility.This remained the case for several decades until trampoline was recognized by the Olympic Committee as an official Olympic Sport for the first time in 2000 at Athens. Even to this day trampoline is outside of the gymnastics world where it once belonged. There have been a lot of political struggles with acrobatics as a whole as you can see and this is just the tip of the iceberg,

Did you know that rope climbs was an element of gymnastics back in the day? There was also an event called Swedish Windows which represented a traditional window pane with the 4 sections where the athlete would have to maneuver around the glass-less window frame in an artistic fashion? Or how about the fact that the "Beam" originated from a part of the ship where the sail was attached called the "Boom". It swung out from the wall and morphed into what we see today. Acrobatics use to be all encompassing and everyone has gone off on their own and I believe we should bring everyone back together.

This is a very brief history of trampoline but it begs a lot of questions. Why did trampoline and gymnastics separate? Why did they change the form of competition from double man elimination to the current standard? Will they have to change it again? Trampoline parks were around in the 60's?... And they got banned because of the same issues we are facing now with injuries and lack of education? These are just some of the questions that are raised. The exact answers to many of them I am not at liberty to divulge but just think about it.

I hope you enjoyed this brief history and that it shows you how much more there is to the story of acrobatics.


Greg Roe

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