A Brief History of US Trampoline

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Trampoline arrived as an Olympic event in year 2000. As a result, many here in the US see competitive trampoline as something new.  While it is not as old as the “artistic gymnastics” events we have seen in the Olympics for many decades, it is, in fact, quite old.  George Nissen invented the modern trampoline in 1936, and first sold it to the Navy as a means of teaching air sense to pilots during World War 2.  The first trampoline competition was held immediately after the war in 1946, and NCAA and AAU adopted the sport in 1947 as part of gymnastics. A number of state high-school gymnastics programs adopted trampoline at about that same time (e.g. Illinois, Minnesota, Georgia).

At that early time, trampoline was solely an American event, and part of a larger and much more diverse gymnastics universe that was (deliberately) pared down through the 1950s and 1960s to a smaller number of events.  That diverse universe included the familiar event of Strip Tumbling, and forgotten events like Flying Rings and Indian Clubs.  George Nissen worked tirelessly to export trampoline competition to the rest of the world, beginning with a number of good-will tours in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  He sponsored the first World Championship in London in 1964, and helped found the International Trampoline Federation (FIT) immediately following that first championship.   As a result, Britain became trampoline’s second home.

It turned out to be vital that George had created a refuge abroad for trampoline, because the sport might otherwise have been erased from history.  The US colleges and the newly formed US Gymnastics Federation (USGF, now USA Gymnastics) dropped their ties to trampoline in 1969 in order to align with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and wrest governance of US gymnastics from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).  That cut a major pipeline for the production of new coaches, and dealt the first body blow to US trampoline.  That was followed by a series of lawsuits in the 1970s that began to put real financial pressure on the trampoline manufacturers. The near fatal blow was dealt by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1977, when they published a paper analyzing trampoline accidents and suggesting that trampolines should be banned.  It did not matter that they later published a retraction blaming unsupervised use (1981); the damage was already done.  All of the major manufacturers stopped producing trampolines immediately in 1977, and nobody in the US would even import replacement parts.  High school programs were ended that year, and the YMCAs and public recreation programs all sold or scrapped their trampolines.  By 1980, total US participation was down to a few hundred athletes, and trampoline was largely exiled from the US for over a decade.

Meanwhile, Europe kept the competition going, developed sensible competition rules and learned a lot about technique. By 1990, we saw new trampoline manufacturing outside of the US, and a cottage industry had developed in the US producing high performance string beds to replace the aging web-beds that had dominated the 60s and 70s. Trampoline made a resurgence in the US in the 1990s, under the auspices of USA Trampoline and Tumbling (USATT*) and the US Trampoline and Tumbling Association (USTA).  The very fact that we have competitive trampoline today in the US is a tribute to those two organizations who kept it going through the dark times. Trampoline became an Olympic sport in 2000. (Australia added it). As part of that move, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) absorbed the FIT, and USA Gymnastics (USAG) absorbed USATT.

Trampoline has now been through 5 Olympic cycles, and the US is stepping up to meet the challenge. Participation remained relatively static between 2000 and 2010, but USA Gymnastics stepped in to ramp up the national program starting in 2011.  Since 2012, USAG has done a remarkable job promoting and building the program, more than doubling nationwide participation by 2014.  Things are finally looking up.

*  Note: USATT had prior names.  It began in 1979 as the US Acrogymnastics Federation (USAF), and by the early 1980s was known as the American Trampoline & Tumbling Association (ATTA).

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