Olympic Torch: From the backyard to the Olympics

Imagine that you’re back in your childhood home. You peer out into the backyard and see a trampoline — your favorite childhood pastime. 

For some, this seemingly short-lived backyard passion has turned into a career with international exposure. Their trampolines have never left the backyard, but these athletes have moved into training centers and stadiums. 

That’s right, trampolining is an Olympic sport.

The trampoline was the brainchild of a young trailblazer named George Nissen in the 1940s. As a teenager, Nissen watched circus performers jumping onto safety nets, and he had the idea to create a product that would let them jump indefinitely. After years of applying for patents and trying different parts for their durability, strength and bounce, the final prototype was born. To test it out, Nissen took it to a YMCA camp.

“My father knew he was on to something,” Nissen’s daughter Dian said in an interview with the Smithsonian Magazine. “He took it to a YMCA camp to try it out and the kids loved it. They wouldn’t even get off it to go to the pool.” 

The trampoline became a serious discipline when it was adopted by the U.S. military in training for World War II, giving pilots the opportunity to learn how to maneuver in mid-air by simulating erratic conditions in the sky during combat.

Finally, after close to 20 years of indoctrination of the trampoline into the world’s consciousness, trampolining became recognized as an official sport in 1962 by the International Gymnastics Federation.

It wasn’t until 2000, when George Nissen was 86 years old, that trampolining became part of the Summer Olympics, debuting in Sydney, Australia. The Olympic trampoline measures 14 feet by 7 feet and is different from your typical backyard trampoline in that it has webbing that will make you jump higher and faster. 

Athletes are scored on execution, difficulty and time of flight through two rounds of jumping: compulsory and voluntary. In the compulsory round, which comes first, the athletes have to perform a predefined set of jumps, and the voluntary round is a final-round showcase of their own creative set of jumps. Different jumps that athletes have in their bags include seat drops, tuck jumps and half twists: all displays of extreme athletic ability.

When asked to give tips on how to maximize chances of success in such a competition, Steven Gluckstein, a six-time men’s U.S. trampoline champion and an Olympian in 2012, gave a simple, almost proverbial response in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

“The harder you push it down, it will spring you back up faster,” Gluckstein said.

With only one man and one woman from the United States able to go to the Olympics for trampolining, Gluckstein learned this truth in a personal manner. In 2012, in order to get to the big stage, he had to beat out his own brother, Jeffrey Gluckstein, who is also a decorated trampolinist. Talk about a backyard rivalry.

This week, that’s exactly where the Olympic torch deserves to reside: in childhood backyards, where competitive spirits are forged and athletes are born.