Nicole Ahsinger is an American trampolinist. She is one among a few in a small group of Olympians whose sport is akin to flying.
“You know when you’re on a roller coaster and you’re about to drop, your heart drops a little bit, and you get the butterflies? That’s what it feels like every time I jump,” she says.
Trampolinists shoot sometimes 26 feet up—higher than a two-story building. They flip, twist, turn, and land back on a trampoline smaller than a parking space. Then they immediately soar skyward again. A routine of 10 jumps, each demonstrating a different trick in the air, lasts less than a minute.
Last week, Ivan Litvinovich of Belarus claimed the men’s gold medal. In the women’s competition, China won both gold and silver: Zhu Xueying got first place and Liu Lingling was second.
“It’s almost like you’re driving your own roller coaster,” says Bryony Page, a British trampolinist who won the bronze medal in Tokyo and the silver in the 2016 Olympics.
Scores are partly based on how much time jumpers spend flying. A laser underneath the trampoline captures the time spent in the air and calculates a point total, rounded to the thousandth of a second. The higher they soar, the higher their score.
Where did this sport come from, anyway? In 1934, an American gymnast named George Nissen went to a circus. He was awed that the acrobats tumbling into safety nets used the bounce from the net to propel themselves into their next trick. Nissen built the first trampoline.
Trampoline as a competitive sport was added to the Olympics for the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.
The sport keeps spectators on the edges of their seats. If athletes flip too much or too little, they can land out of control with the force of falling from the top of a two-story building.
Page has been public about her struggle with “lost-move syndrome.” That’s when aerial athletes forget, sometimes mid-air, how to do the skills they’ve always done automatically. Athletes in trampoline’s sister sport, artistic gymnastics, call this phenomenon the “twisties.” (This is the condition American gymnast Simone Biles says she experienced when she withdrew from team competition last week.)
She describes panicking upside down as she plunged back toward the trampoline. She had to slowly retrain her skills and her mind to override the anxiety.
“When you get lost in the air, it’s one of the most terrifying experiences you can have,” says two-time Olympic gold medal trampolinist Rosie MacLennan of Canada.
Even with the danger, these athletes still love the feeling of flying.
But despite that wonder of flight, trampoline doesn’t get much attention in most of the world. These athletes hope gradually to bring the spotlight to the high-flying sport.
(Aliaksei Shostak of the United States competes in the men’s trampoline gymnastics qualifier at the 2020 Summer Olympics on July 31, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. AP/Natacha Pisarenko)