Bouncing to Beijing … and beyond
In early July, USA Gymnastics announced that Erin Blanchard and Chris Estrada had made the 2008 Olympic trampoline team. Trampoline has been an Olympic event since 2000, but this is the first time the U.S. will be represented by both a man and woman at the Games.
Unlike artistic gymnastics, where a handful of Americans - and the women as a team - are considered medal contenders, neither Blanchard nor Estrada is favored to medal in Beijing. Estrada finished 24th at the 2007 Trampoline World Championships, and Blanchard, 18, has never competed at Worlds. Her best finish to date is a win in synchronized trampoline at a World Cup in June, but synchronized trampoline isn't contested at the Olympics.
"It will be very tough," Estrada says, when asked how confident he is of making it to the finals (top eight) at the Olympics. "I was 24th at worlds, and I didn't do that badly."
But all is not gloom and doom for the U.S. in this high-flying sport. The fact that Americans earned two Olympic berths is a sign that the program is rebuilding. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) awarded the U.S. the wild card spot in men's trampoline at the 2008 Olympics based on Estrada's 24th place at 2007 Worlds. The U.S. women earned a spot after Brittany Dircks took 22nd at 2007 Worlds. Dircks then had to compete for the spot but qualified fourth.
Former world champion Dmitry Polyarush is now at the helm of this young U.S. national team, and the Byelorussian's goals for the team sound like his mantra during practice: Up, up, up higher, up ...
Although the Russians have ruled trampoline for over three decades, with the Chinese making inroads recently, it was once a very American sport - invented by an American, with Americans holding 14 world titles in the 1960s and early 70s.
It became a competitive event in 1936 after American George Nissen attached springs to a piece of canvas and bolted the springs to an iron frame. He dubbed it a trampoline after hearing the term "el trampolin" (Spanish for diving board) in Mexico.
The first Trampoline World Championships were held in 1964, and Dan Millman and Judy Wills Cline, both from the U.S., won the respective titles (the first of five consecutive wins for Wills Cline). American men won the next five world championship crowns, and in addition to Wills Cline's five titles, Americans Renee Ramson and Alexandra Nicholson kept the winning streak alive for three more championships. Ramson won once, Nicholson twice.
Since 1974 Worlds, Americans have not stood on the podium's top step. Jennifer Parilla is the only American to compete in trampoline at the Olympics. In 2000, she finished ninth; in 2004, she was 14th. She has since retired.
So what's happened to American trampolinists in the past three decades?
Polyarush, who won Worlds in 1996, thinks the sport's downfall in the United States is a result of the proliferation of trampolines "in parks and schools and backyards, everywhere" in the 1970s and 1980s.
"You can't do [trampoline] without instructors," he explains. "A lot of people got injured. It was a very hard time with the insurance companies because nobody wanted to cover the clubs. So trampoline went pretty much down big time in the 1980s."
This left "a big hole" in terms of development, putting the U.S. far behind other countries, like the former Soviet Union, where trampolining was growing in popularity. At the seventeen world championships held from 1976 to 2007, Soviet and Russian trampolinists have won 21 individual world titles.
Russia's high-flying phenom, Irina Karavaeva, 33, owns five of those crowns. She also won the gold medal at trampoline's Olympic debut in 2000 and declares on her Web site that she is "the most decorated female trampolinist ever." She began competing in trampoline when she was 14.
By comparison, most of the U.S. trampolinists are young - Blanchard is 18 and just graduated from high school in June; Estrada is one of the oldest American trampolinists at 25.
Polyarush is a product of the former Soviet Union's strong gymnastics program, and he appears stern and serious - a coach trying to instill his knowledge on the young Americans who have high aspirations.
He first retired from competition in 1997 and moved to the U.S. in 1998 to coach at Tara Guidry's gym, Trampoline and Tumbling Express, in Lafayette, Louisiana - Blanchard's home gym and Estrada's adopted gym. When trampoline became an Olympic event, Polyarush came out of retirement to compete for Belarus in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, where he finished fifth and fourth, respectively. He became U.S. national coach in 2005 after retiring from competition again.
"I said, well, I have nothing to lose, we can only get better," he says about taking the job.
When asked what the U.S. athletes need to do in order to move back into the upper echelons of trampolining, Polyarush seems optimistic.
"First, our team is pretty young," he explains. "They need to have experience. Second, we are a little bit behind in difficulty, but not that much."
He coaches at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs now and has the trampolinists working out six to seven hours a day. Estrada moved to OTC in June 2007; Blanchard followed her coach to OTC in January 2008 after she had finished accruing the necessary credits to graduate high school.
"We've had some pretty good success," says Polyarush of the Americans' recent performances. "It's going up and up and up every year."
So how far up will they fly by the Olympics in August?
"I'm planning on having at least one finalist in Beijing," Polyarush declares. "That's reasonable. I think we can do it."
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.