Once he showed up at a rodeo, where he was to perform, and when people saw the trampoline lashed to the roof of his car they yelled, "Here's the fella with the starting gate." Then there was the time, after a long search for his trampoline in a freight office, that Nissen spotted it and then learned the reason no one else had was because "they all thought it was a cow stanchion."
Throughout the late '30s and early '40s people began hearing about the trampoline as Nissen put on 300 to 400 shows a year, mostly at school assemblies. While in the Navy in World War II he sold some top brass on using trampolines to help pilots with space orientation. Nissen himself wound up at St. Mary's (Calif.) Preflight School in charge of such a program, and it was there that trampolining was born as a sport.
After the war Nissen and his trampoline went to Europe, where he got a hard time from border guards when he tried to cross into Communist countries with a weird-looking, folded-up apparatus on top of his car. Nissen would explain that it was a trampoline. The guards would consult their dictionaries. "There is no such thing as a trampoline," they would tell him. Nissen would try sign language, pantomime. Before long the guards would decide that anyone foolish enough to risk playing with that silly-looking gizmo was harmless, and they would wave him across. Such fun and games are past. "They know what a trampoline is now," says Nissen, "and they just smile and wave us on."
There will probably always be those who can't resist asking if the trampoline is used for training elevator operators. And for those who feel they must ask Nissen if he is bothered by all the ups and downs in his business, he replies, "No, it's only the jerks that bother me."
In the late 1950s there was a hula-hoop type of fad for trampolining that left the countryside dotted with jumping centers. Mom, Pop and the kids would stop at these centers, and by the lime they left many needed medical care. Even nimble teen-agers learned that they were in for a hard landing when they found themselves in midair with a hamburger in one hand, a Coke in the other and their feet pointing skyward. Now, when Nissen wished people would forget his trademark, it seemed that it was all they could think of when they decided to sue. He has since virtually abandoned the trademark. Indeed, in 1959 the name of the sport was officially changed from trampolining to rebound tumbling. There is no record of the first intercollegiate match, but NCAA and AAU championships began in 1948 and the world championships in 1964.
Surprisingly, the Russians credit Nissen with inventing the sport. They do, however, claim to have devised an offshoot in which two contestants try to put a ball through a horizontal, basketball-type net suspended above the trampoline surface. Nissen, who devised this sport in 1958, calls it spaceball, the Soviets cosmoball.
Astronaut Scott Carpenter was one of Nissen's pupils at St. Mary's, and shortly before he took off in Aurora 7 he asked Nissen for a trampoline to aid him in space orientation. Other astronauts have used trampolines in their training and so did Cosmonaut Aleksi Archipovich Leonov, the first man to walk in space.
"When bouncing on a trampoline," says Nissen, "there is an instant of weightlessness at the very top of the bounce. When you bounce up, you're a free body, which means you rotate around your own center of gravity. It's the next thing to actually being out in space."
Fittingly, the U.S. has dominated the sport, having won all five men's and women's individual world championships. In synchronized competition, in which two tramps bounce simultaneously, the U.S. has won two of four men's titles, two of three women's. But the Europeans are improving rapidly, and U.S. dominance could be nearing an end.
Five-time world champion Judy Wills has dropped out, but Wayne Miller is back after some harrowing experiences. In 1966 Miller, then a sophomore at Michigan, won all four big trampoline competitions: AAU, NCAA, world and the international Schuster Cup. Then Miller's high life had a comedown.