Dave Ross knew he’d seen something special, but toned down his reaction, not wanting to look like “an ass” on national TV. It was the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and one of his athletes, Jason Burnett, had just finished his final routine in men’s trampoline. After a dismal compulsory routine, Burnett had edged his way into the final, where his performance was nearly flawless, a marriage of artistry and near-robotic technique.
“When I saw his routine,” says Ross, “before he even landed and stuck and people were cheering, what went through my mind clear as day—sorry for the expletive—was, ‘Holy shit, Jason has just won the Olympics. Nobody can do a better routine than that.’”
Ross reckons that after the competition, some three hundred people approached him and all but two of them said the same thing: that Burnett’s routine was best. A couple months after Beijing, at a World Cup event, Burnett was approached by a Russian coach. The man was Vitaly Dubko, then in his early seventies, a veteran of the sport’s community. Eight years earlier, Dubko had coached the first men’s and women’s Olympic trampoline champions in Sydney. He knew what a champion looked like. To this day, Burnett remembers the coach’s simple message to him, delivered in clipped English: “You are number one Olympian.”
But after Burnett’s routine, six athletes remained. Five went up, and each scored lower than Burnett. The final competitor was Lu Chunlong, a Chinese teenager weighing less than 130 pounds, who’d already won multiple World Cup events. As expected, his routine excelled in height and execution, though it wasn’t flawless, nor had Lu competed a routine as difficult as Burnett’s. “I was thinking it was going to be pretty close,” says Burnett, and he was right. When the scores came in, Lu had beaten him by three-tenths of a point.
It was a debatable call, but Ross and Burnett have come to terms with it. “In a judged sport,” says Ross, “when you leave it up to the judges, you have to be happy with what you get.” Burnett is happy he beat one of the Chinese athletes. These days, that’s all anyone can really hope for. Ross is happy too. Any podium finish exceeds his modest expectations.
“My Olympic goal was actually to turn on the TV sometime before I’m dead and see trampoline in the Olympics,” he says. “I never expected it to happen while I was still coaching.”
Ross’s parents were pissed when he chose trampoline coaching as his career. They thought it was a waste of his physics degree. They thought he’d wind up a janitor. But the sport—and the feeling it brought him as a competitor—was intoxicating. “I always dreamed about flying,” he says. “After I started trampoline, those dreams kind of stopped, because I was actually doing it.”
Four decades after his decision, Ross runs one of Canada’s most dependable—if somewhat unheralded—pipelines to the Olympics. Since trampoline debuted in Sydney, Ross’s athletes have won five medals—three silver and two bronze—more than athletes representing any other country. (It’s perhaps an unfair comparison, but Canada’s track and field team has won a single medal over the same three-Olympic span.) His most decorated athlete is Karen Cockburn. She’s the only trampolinist to have medalled in three consecutive Olympics, a record she’ll try to extend in London. As always, Canada’s trampoline team—Cockburn, Burnett and Rosie MacLennan—will be in medal contention.
It’s a hot Sunday evening in June and Ross is leaning against a padded wall in Skyriders Trampoline Place, his gym in Richmond Hill, Ontario, north of Toronto. He’s now 62 years of age, with a flop of white hair and a fit and wiry frame, one belonging to a former athlete. He tilts his head skyward to track his athletes in space, who twist and somersault during two-second windows of flight, a fleeting weightlessness that peaks 20 feet off the ground. He slides crash pads under athletes trying newer and tougher tricks. He offers words of encouragement and advice when necessary.
When Ross opened the gym in 1990, it was probably the best trampoline facility in the world, good enough that it coaxed him from competitive retirement a year later. “If I’m going to build a playground for athletes to play in,” he says, “I’m definitely going to play in it before I’m too old to enjoy it.” In 1993, he retired from trampoline for the fifth and final time at the age of forty-three.
Burnett came to Skyriders about thirteen years ago because he’d run out of ceiling space at his first gym. At the time, he was an adolescent daredevil who did backflips to make new friends. To those already at Skyriders—Ross, Cockburn and Matt Turgeon, the bronze medallist at the Sydney Games—Burnett’s rise in the sport seemed fated.
“He probably didn’t tell you how we used to call him ‘fetus,’ right?” asks Ross. “We all saw how fast he was progressing and could picture where he was going to be, like in a science fiction movie, how the little lizard rapidly evolves into a monster.”
Now 25, Burnett has evolved into the sport’s most daring competitor.
He’s held a degree of difficulty record for the past two years, and yet it pales next to his toughest routine at Skyriders. That routine was filmed and uploaded to YouTube with the name “!!!! Hardest TRamPoline Routine 20.6 Jason Burnett !!!!!!” It’s a dizzying set of tricks—one that starts with a quadruple front-flip—and Burnett somehow manages to harness its power. “In the trampoline community,” says Burnett, “it’s just known as the hardest routine ever done.”
In June, his practice routines are focused and measured, not the windmill of limbs that rack up YouTube views. From the opposite side of Skyriders, his tricks unfold as choreography, a balletic performance that straddles art and sport. But from next to the trampoline bed—a surface of 98 square feet—his tricks look decidedly visceral. Over the course of a typical routine—which lasts about 20 seconds—Burnett whips his body into rotations greater than 1000 degrees per second.
Burnett’s spatial awareness, says Ross, is unparalleled, but it also helps that Burnett trains on some of the world’s finest trampolines. For the most part, Skyriders is outfitted by Rebound Products, a company run by Ross. It’s a small company—he says there are five to six full-time employees—but it sells to trampoline and gymnastics clubs across the world, and Ross has designed custom products for Cirque du Soleil.
Ross’s greatest innovation might be the “Super Tramp,” something he’s been perfecting for the past 27 years. It’s a trampoline with a 200 square foot bed that bounces higher, and subsequently, gives athletes extra split-seconds to learn new skills. (The bounce is high enough that Burnett can grab—and hang from—the gym’s rafters, 24 feet off the ground.) Ross’s innovation is so coveted that plenty of athletes doing off-axis rotations—like snowboarders, wakeboarders and slopstyle skiers—have made a training pilgrimage to Richmond Hill, including past U.S. national aerial ski teams. American athletes have no choice but to make the trip: Ross won’t sell his product south of the border. He doesn’t want to risk any possible litigation.
Trampolines went mainstream in American culture in 1960. By May of that year, there were 175 jump centers—basically rec centers with trampolines—in Southern California; six months earlier, there were only 10 in the Los Angeles Area. Archie Moore, the light heavyweight champion of the world, owned a jump center, and rumoured trampoline owners included then Vice-President Richard Nixon and actors Yul Brynner and Cary Grant. In an article from Australia’s The Age, President Eisenhower’s heart physician said trampolines could solve a nationwide problem: that Americans were overweight and too busy or lazy to exercise. Because trampolines were fun and had obvious health benefits, he said, "This sport could be one of the best things to have happened to America.”
But by the end of the year, trampolines were just the latest fad, going the same wayward direction as the hula hoop and yo-yo. The jump centers were hardly reputable establishments, many of which were owned by entrepreneurs seizing the latest trend. In an Associated Press article, one of those owners said he started a jump center with $400 and a vague idea of how to run the business. “We didn't know whether the people would fall off,” he recalled, “but they didn't. The kids don't want to get hurt, so they keep themselves on.” Turns out people got hurt. The same AP article mentions one death and several injuries that were attributed to trampoline use, and inevitably, jump centers were getting sued by injured customers, sometimes to the tune of five- and six-figure settlements.
None of this pleased George Nissen. He knew trampolines, and he knew the rush of new manufacturers was producing unsafe equipment. He knew this because 26 years earlier he’d invented the first working prototype at the University of Iowa, where he was a three-time NCAA gymnastics champion. Nissen got his idea from the circus, where he’d seen acrobats bounce from a safety net, often with added flair. Once he graduated, he and two friends toured the United States and Mexico as the Three Leonardos, an acrobat/comedy troupe that promoted his invention. It was during their stay in Mexico that Nissen trained with local divers and learned the Spanish name for diving board: el trampolín. With that, he decided on the name of his invention, and in the early 1940s, Griswold-Nissen Trampoline and Tumbling Co. was opened in Cedar Rapids.
In the ensuing decades, Nissen would remain the sport’s predominant pitchman. It didn’t take long for American schools to start purchasing his invention and Nissen persuaded the American military to buy trampolines during the Second World War, as a way for pilots and divers to train their spatial awareness. Following the war, Nissen traveled to 40 countries over three to four decades to promote the sport and get international competitions off the ground. Perhaps the most iconic image from his salesman era came in 1960. It’s a photo taken in Central Park, with George on the left side of the frame, suspended in a pike position from a Nissen trampoline while wearing a business suit. To the right is a kangaroo, also airborne. Nissen rented the kangaroo from a Long Island animal supplier.
Nissen’s company may have survived the sport’s trendy era, but it wasn’t meant for the long term. According to a biography of Nissen written by his daughter, the company spent its last two decades in a corporate shuffle, consumed by one company before being sold to another. Nissen was also spending “a good percentage” of his time defending his products in liability lawsuits. Then in 1989, after nearly five decades of business, Nissen’s company closed for good.
And yet he continued to invent. Nissen created the “Bunsaver Air Cushion,” a self-inflating seat for spectators to use at sporting events, and the “Laptop Exercycle,” designed for seated exercise on long flights. It’s believed that Nissen held over 40 patents. At the age of 84, he told the San Diego Reader that inventing was one of three things that made you happy: “Working. Loving. And creating.” But public acceptance, he said, proved your invention “was more than just your bullshit.” Two years later, Nissen sat in the bleachers in Sydney, watching the sport he created being competed at the Olympics for the first time.
"That was always my goal and my dream," Nissen told Reuters at the Games. "The struggle and the journey—that's the Olympic spirit."
If Burnett has learned anything in the past four years, it’s how to jump in pain. Metal plates are drilled into his right leg, part of his rehab after snapping his fibula. Before jumping, his feet are always taped, his only remedy for plantar fasciitis, a searing inflammation of the connective tissue supporting the foot’s arch. And prior to a recent World Cup event in Europe, he couldn’t jump for a week, sidelined by back pain. “I’ve been told that all my joints have a bank account now,” he says, “and every time I put a little impact on them I lose a little bit of money from the account.”
And yet injuries could be the least of his problems. Two years ago, the International Gymnastics Federation—the international body that governs trampoline—tweaked its judging system by adding an objective height score, which is derived from the athlete’s time of flight. “It’s good that [the judging is] more objective,” says Burnett, “but the height rule kind of works against me right now, just ’cause I’m not one of the highest bouncers in the world.”
Chinese trampolinists, however, jump very high. In recent years, China has become the sport’s juggernaut. Two weeks after trampoline was announced as a medal event in 1998, Ross remembers the contingent of Chinese officials that descended on the world championships with video cameras and notepads. A short time later, “they open up 20 national training centers and they start training seriously for the Olympics,” he says. “So, of course, here it is, 14 years later, and they’re dominating the sport. They’re training harder than people in the rest of the world. That’s their job, they’re professionals. They have more people doing trampoline at a high level probably than the rest of the world combined.”
Herein lies the advantage that Ross once enjoyed: he ran an Olympic-calibre program before trampoline was an Olympic sport. It takes 10 years, he says, to produce world-class trampolinists and the sport’s Olympic lifespan has hit 14 years, plenty of catch-up time. And it’s not only a case of China throwing money into trampoline: other countries are bolstering their programs, not to mention other clubs in Canada. Ross says Skyriders is top-heavy with talent and thinks that less than 10% of Canada’s best juniors are training at his club. His advantage has evaporated.
But his current crop of athletes is still elite. MacLennan and Cockburn finished first and second, respectively, at a recent World Cup event in Switzerland, their final tune-up before London, where both will threaten the podium. Reaching the podium will be tougher for Burnett. At the same World Cup event, he failed to qualify for the final round. Then again, he wasn’t pegged to make the final in Beijing either. If he reaches the podium in London, the narrative will have to follow a familiar script, one in which Burnett fights for a spot in the final eight, “and then, same as 2008,” he says, “I’m going to throw down the biggest routine of the competition, and then hope that everything goes well.”
The key thing, says Ross, is going into competition with the judges thinking you might win before the day starts. “And when you’re an unknown who [did as well as Burnett in Beijing],” he says, “they might just have underscored him a little bit, and that was the little bit that he needed” for the gold medal.
This time around, the judges know Burnett well. The trouble is that they know more names than ever.
Matt Lundy is a Toronto-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter @mattlundy33.