LAFAYETTE — Trampoline gymnasts bounce so high, it looks like they might hit their heads or outstretched arms on the 34-foot ceiling at this south Louisiana gym.
“No danger,” says Dmitri Poliaroush , coach of the U.S. national trampoline gymnastics team. He adds, a bit wistfully, “I wish.”
The higher the bounce, the more twists and turns the athletes can produce during routines less than a half-minute long.
Several athletes in Lafayette say the part of the routines they love best is the jump just before they begin their “skills” — the moment when it’s all air and potential.
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Hunter Brewster, Sarah Webster and Nicole Ahsinger are among those training at the gym and will be among 22 men and 11 women competing in the U.S. trampoline gymnastics trials this weekend in Providence, Rhode Island. One man and one woman will qualify for the Rio Olympics, along with two alternates.
Only five U.S. trampoline competitors have made it to the Olympics, and just one to the finals.
Trampoline gymnasts do flips, twists, and somersaults — forward and backward — in a half-dozen different positions from curled up to straight, while staying in the air as long as possible between bounces.
It’s a far cry from the backyard trampoline.
Brewster loved Power Rangers and imitated action TV characters at age 8, doing flips on his grandmother’s bed. His parents got him into training so he wouldn’t hurt himself.
“You feel like you’re on top of the world,” he said. “Cheerleaders tumble. But you never see a human being jump 30 feet into the air.”
Does it feel like a superpower? “Oh, yeah!”
Trampoline gymnastics is a relatively new Olympic sport, first performed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And the trampoline was only invented in the 1930s, when diver and gymnast George Nissen saw circus trapeze artists somersault as they bounced up from their safety net and thought it could help him practice those sports.
Despite inventing the trampoline, the U.S. is not the leader in trampoline gymnastics. China has won eight of the 24 Olympic medals; Canada has six, Russia four. Ukraine and Germany have two each, Uzbekistan and Australia one each. The United States? Zero.
“We are getting closer to the scores it takes to get on the podium as medalists,” said Dr. George Drew, head of the trampoline and tumbling program for USA Gymnastics.
Webster started out in ballet, which she disliked. “I was not the most graceful person,” she said. Then she tried trampoline. She loves the flips and, though she doesn’t say so, is graceful in the air.
At 17— she’s the youngest competitor at this level.
“Anything can happen at the Olympic trials,” Webster said. “I know if I work hard enough I have a chance. I’m going to continue training after this year, no matter what happens.”
Trampoline gymnastics is unpredictable because it’s mentally difficult, said Poliaroush, who competed in the 2000 and 2004 Athens Olympics for Belarus.
“In gymnastics, if you fall from the beam you can get back up. If you figure skate, you can fall flat on your back and continue your routine,” Poliaroush said. “In trampoline, you don’t have that second chance.”
Touch down outside the trampoline’s fabric and you’re out.
The sport gets more difficult every year as athletes try new and harder combinations, Drew said.
“Women are now doing skills only done by men four years ago, and men are doing skills never before seen in previous Olympics,” he said.
Four years ago, the best women performed a “triffis” — a triple somersault with a half-twist.
“Now we’re seeing women who have two triples, and end with a triple twisting double back ,” he said. “In 2000, 2004, men were doing three triples over a routine. Now we’re seeing four and five.”
This year’s Olympic hopefuls include Californians Logan Dooley and Charlotte Drury , who train at World Elite Gymnastics in Rancho Santa Margarita. Their performances in the Olympic test games in Rio ensured the U.S. could compete in “tramp,” but didn’t ensure their spot on the team.
Brothers Jeffrey and Steven Gluckstein of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, also have a good chance. Dooley and Jeffrey Gluckstein are the only men with Olympic selection points from two earlier trials.
Drury leads the women, while two women coached by Poliaroush — Ahsinger and Shaylee Dunavin — are second and third.
Poliaroush and gym owner Tara Guidry trained four of the five U.S. Olympic competitors, including Savannah Vinsant, who made the 2012 finals.
Poliaroush, 45, moved to Lafayette in 1998 to train athletes at Guidry’s gym, but still competed for his home country in two Olympics. He called Lafayette the “center of the world” for trampolinists in the 1960s and ‘70s. That’s when the university team was coached by Jeff Hennessy, who died last year.
In competition, trampolinists perform sets of 10 different combinations while staying up as long as possible — 17, 18, seconds or more. Their first two routines, one compulsory and one optional, decide who gets into the finals. The finalists do a third routine.
The amount of time touching the trampoline is subtracted, using an electronic sensor. Touch down on the pads over the springs or ends, and you’re out. Scores for form, difficulty and “time of flight” are added together.
Ahsinger’s mother wanted to steer her away from the pain she endured in gymnastics.
However, Ahsinger’s father secretly took her to a gym when she was 3, thinking it might stop her from running into walls. Turns out she needed glasses, but she loved the gym.
“I remember coming home so excited,” Ahsinger said. “I just loved to jump.”
Then she told her mother, “I want to go to the Olympics.”
The 18-year-old Ahsinger is working on height and staying in the middle rather than straying to one side or the other.
“I was never supposed to be in the running,” she said of this year’s trials, but is giving it a shot with an eye toward the 2020 Olympics.
Poliaroush said it’s really hard to predict who among the 33 athletes will make the team.
“It’s so much in the air right now,” he said.