INDIANAPOLIS, Ind., April 8, 2010 – George Nissen, recognized as the inventor of the modern trampoline, died April 7 at the age of 96 in San Diego, Calif., from complications from pneumonia. Nissen also helped grow worldwide interest in trampoline through his exhibitions and travels. His dream of having trampoline in the Olympic Games became a reality at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
“George Nissen was a true sports pioneer,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. “He was loved and respected for his many accomplishments and contributions. His vision, innovations and passion sowed the seeds for trampoline’s worldwide popularity today. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
“George Nissen was a personal friend and hero of mine,” said Peter Vidmar, chairman of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors and 1984 Olympic gold medalist. “He was passionate and tireless in his enthusiasm for promoting the benefits of gymnastics as a foundation for overall fitness. I sat next to George during the finals of the 2000 Olympic Trampoline finals. He was so proud that the sport that he had pioneered had not only become an Olympic discipline, but that its appeal was truly global. He was famous for holding a rock solid handstand well into his 80s and I was privileged to be a part of many demonstrations with George on behalf of the California Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness & Sports. What I will miss most about George is his kindness. All of us in the gymnastics community will miss him, but his legacy will last forever.”
Nissen got his inspiration for the trampoline when watching trapeze artists at a circus rebound on the safety net. He was a member of his high school’s tumbling team and learned to dive at the local YMCA. Nissen thought adapting the safety net concept could be helpful in his training.
During college, Nissen and his coach Larry Griswold developed the prototype for the modern trampoline in 1934. The initial trampoline was heavy, and Nissen recognized the need to modify the design to make it lighter and more portable. He competed for the University of Iowa and won three collegiate titles before graduating in 1937 with a business degree.
Upon graduation, Nissen teamed up with two friends and formed the “Three Leonardos.” They traveled the country performing hand-balancing acts and a comedy tumbling routine at fairs, carnivals, etc. Eventually, their travels extended to Mexico, where Nissen learned the Spanish word for diving or spring board, “trampolin,” and decided to trademark the English version of the word, trampoline, for his rebounding equipment. Trampoline has evolved into the generic word used to describe the equipment.
In 1941, he and Griswold opened Griswold Nissen Trampoline and Tumbling Co. in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. During World War II, the military used trampolines to help train pilots and other personnel to help them learn how to orient themselves in the air. In 1943, Nissen joined the Navy.
After the war, he traveled the world promoting his equipment and the sport of “rebound tumbling.” In 1947, Nissen started having “rebound tumbling” competitions. The sport eventually became known as trampoline.
Nissen held more than 40 patents. His company expanded to include gymnastics equipment and other products. He also created Spaceball, a game played on a trampoline with a ball. Nissen sold the company, which went out of business in the 1980s.
In 1971, he and Griswold started the U.S. Tumbling and Trampoline Association, which later split into two organizations. One of those eventually became a part of USA Gymnastics in 1999 when the sport became a part of the Olympic program. Today, two competitive events bear his name, including the Nissen Cup in Switzerland.
In 1966, Nissen established the Nissen Award, which is now known as the Nissen-Emery Award. The annual award recognizes the top male senior collegiate gymnast and is presented during the annual Men’s NCAA National Championships.
Nissen was born Feb. 1, 1914, in Blairstown, Iowa. He married a Dutch acrobat, Annie, and they had two daughters, Dagmar and Dian. He and his wife moved to San Diego to be closer to one of their daughters. He was surrounded by his family when he died. Details for funeral arrangements are not currently available.
Wikipedia and several other Web reports served as source materials.
Photos by Laura Baer