Boing.... Trampoline champion Karl Heger soars 10 feet.... Boing.... The kids at the school assembly say, "Ooohhh." ...Boing.... Heger tops 20 feet, rising toward the ceiling.... Boing.... He readies himself for a series of triple-flips and double-twists....
"Boof! All of a sudden everything went black," Heger recalls. "I had pushed my head through a ceiling tile. And it was the weirdest feeling, because I lost sense of everything. Then I came flying down. The kids thought it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen. They thought it was part of the show. But it scared the hell out of me."
It takes a lot to scare Heger, a 34-year-old FBI agent who has won a record 15 national trampoline titles. Along the way, he has run into more than just low gym ceilings. In Germany nine years ago, when Heger was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he loaded his trampoline onto a five-ton ammunition trailer, covered it with camouflage netting and hauled it along as his unit headed out for combat exercises. In the field his buddies couldn't see the trampoline, because it was hidden by a ring of tanks, jeeps and trucks. But there was no mistaking Heger, who rose and fell rhythmically over the motor pool, unfazed by the helicopters roaring overhead.
When many Americans think of trampolines, they usually picture kids cavorting in the backyard on a big toy. That's a far cry from competitive trampolining, in which athletes perform 10-trick routines on an apparatus that costs about $8,000. The sport is most popular in Europe, where Heger is well known as the "wild American." He is believed to be the only person in the world to have done the extremely difficult, and rarely attempted, quad cody, a trick in which the trampolinist jumps three stories into the air, does a¾ back somersault, comes down and bounces on his chest, backflips 4¼ revolutions and, if all goes well, lands on his feet.
Heger, 5'10" and a solid 170 pounds, has performed eight quad codies, although he's less willing to try the trick these days. He's married with two young sons, and his battered knees limit his training to four 90-minute sessions a week. At this year's nationals in early June he narrowly finished second to Ryan Weston, 17. When Heger is not working out, he is working for the FBI in the bureau's Rockford, Ill., office, where he regularly assists the Metro Narcotics Unit with investigations and operations.
"I can honestly say he was never afraid of anything," says June Heger, recalling her son's childhood in suburban St. Louis. While a toddler, Karl busted the hinges on a dishwasher door because he used it so often en route to the cookie jar atop the refrigerator. At age three he went higher, scaling a seven-foot shed—and leaping to the ground. His perplexed parents signed him up for trampoline lessons at the local YMCA.
It was love at first seat drop. Young Karl had found his sport. So had thousands of others, for this was the 1960s, and trampolines were everywhere. Not surprisingly there were few instructors who knew what they were doing. Kids got hurt, sometimes seriously, and a series of multimillion-dollar lawsuits pushed insurance premiums for gyms through the roof. By the end of the 1970s, most gyms had locked up their trampolines or sold them. For $400, 15-year-old Karl got a used trampoline from a YMCA.
He stored it in the backyard, under a bright-blue sheet of plastic. On nice days, when June and her husband, Fred, glanced out their second-floor bedroom window, they could see their son—every two seconds or so.
He charged ahead, even as his sport was declining. He sought out meets. At one event in Kansas City, his fearlessness and erratic form caught the eye of Paul Swafford, who had coached several nationally ranked trampolinists. "Oh, my gosh," Swafford remembers thinking. "This guy needs help."
Heger was thrilled to finally find a coach, even one 240 miles from home. Heger trained particularly hard on the double minitramp, an enlarged version of the minitramps used by acrobats and mascots who dunk basketballs during sporting events. For the double-mini, which is one of the apparatuses used in national and international competitions, the athlete runs up to the tramp, bounces 15 feet straight into the air, flips, twists, lands on the rear portion of the tramp and goes airborne for a second trick, flipping, twisting and coming down on a landing pad behind the tramp.