George Nissen - 1914-2010

Quotes from the gymnastics community

"The passing of George Nissen brings to the surface feelings of admiration and gratitude, which I have long borne for this truly great man,” Grandi said. “George possessed extraordinary imagination and courage, tools which in his hands gave shape to an apparatus, a discipline, and ultimately an Olympic dream. I will remember him for having adorned sport in general and gymnastics in particular with an original flair; for having added an aerial dimension that has enhanced the sport gesture as a whole. He will be missed."
--- Prof Bruno Grandi - FIG President


"George Nissen was a personal friend and hero of mine. 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."
--- Peter Vidmar - Chairman, USA Gymnastics Board of Directors - 1984 Olympic gold medalist


"Death is always a sad occasion and even more so when it involves someone like George Nissen. A person who touched the lives and hearts of people the world over. His passing will leave a void in the lives of many, many of us. He bought a copy of my new book just a few days ago."
--- Jerry Wright


"In the 1960s, I requested that George Nissen design a mat that could easily be folded up and non-intrusively be strapped to the wall of our competition gym. George immediately went to work and soon came up with the roll-fold design. He was so excited about this new design that he personally made the trip from Iowa to Connecticut to set up the mat (showing me how to do it), which he did until the wee hours of the morning - because our meet (with Penn State) was that afternoon.

"In the late 1950s, after hearing about the superiority of European apparatus, Nissen took it upon himself to import the brand of European equipment that had been used in previous Olympic Games, rather than wait to produce his own. That equipment became the preferred equipment for the U.S. gymnasts.

"George Nissen certainly met the needs for U.S. gymnastics, not to mention the design, manufacture and worldwide distribution of trampoline which, as we know, was fairly recently accepted as one of the Olympic sports.

"George Nissen was and will remain a true legend in our sport."
--- Abie Grossfeld


"I met George when I was a 12-year old, just learning the rudiments of jumping the trampoline. He was then, and remained, a role model for me all these years. His achievements are many, but what I most remember is what a kind man he was. Along with all who knew him, I'll miss him, but he will live long in our hearts and memories."
--- Dan Millman


"George was an inspiration to all of us who knew him mostly for his zest for life rather than his huge contribution to our sport. Everything he touched was left with a glow eternally.... Even his line of equipment was chromed so it sparkled forever. To this day we have an adjustable high bar and ring rig that has remarkably stood the test of time and use. Therefore, each day I am reminded of this gentleman who remain passionate about gymnastics especially the programs for the masses.

"I was fortunate enough to work with some of his family members, and I know he has instilled in them his joy of life and gymnastics. RIP, George!!"
--- Paul Ziert


"George was a quiet, kind man who never boasted of his accomplishments to my knowledge. His modesty hid the many contributions he made to developing well-engineered and inventive gymnastics apparatus and to promoting our sport."
--- Fred Turoff


"I'll never forget the first time I saw a trampoline. It was the perfect flipping contraption to me. Three months later I was at a trampoline and tumbling clinic and the man who invented it took the time to come up to me and talk to me about trampolining. Later he wished me good luck in my first trampoline competition. I was just a nobody in the sport, so of course my jaw dropped, but that is the way George was.

"Everyone will remember the George Nissen who invented the trampoline, pushed and developed the sport of trampoline and tumbling, and lived his life solely promoting acrobatic sports around the world. They will remember him as being the greatest man they ever knew. I will also remember all of these, but most importantly I will remember the George Nissen who was there for all the kids all the time. For him it was not about money or ego, but it was all about the kids no matter what level they were at. Where ever we would go, George would be there in support both financially and morally. That is my fondest memory of him. I feel like I lost my father for a second time, as George was a father to all of us in the sport. Thank you George for everything!"
--- Jim Bertz


"George Nissen is a great part of the tapestry of gymnastics history. Without question, the sport would have been totally different without him. So, we are all very fortunate to have had George cross our life's path and do what he did to all of us to make us who we are today. While George will be missed, he will not be forgotten. He is part of a unique and a very elite group of our sports leaders, at a time when most needed, who took it upon themselves to do something special - to help develop and grow the sport of Gymnastics. He made great sacrifices, worked hard and provided so many with opportunities that helped us all - and for that we will always be indebted to George Nissen for his creativity, his passion, his vision and his love for the sport of Gymnastics."
--- Mike Jacki


I met George almost 50 years ago when he donated apparatus to the very popular "National Gymnastics Clinic" in Sarasota, Fla., around Christmas. (That was the site everyone attended prior to the season.) We became friends and often talked at various NCAA national championships - before and after his famous handstand exhibition during the banquet. (I still have a picture of us together at one of the championships.) He most certainly made a significant contribution to gymnastics.
--- Dick Aronson

Excerpts from a 2006 interview with George Nissen

In January 2006, Jim Bertz, a 1976 and 1978 tumbling world champion, interviewed George Nissen for acrobaticsports.com. Bertz gave USA Gymnastics permission to post excerpts from the interview. For the complete interview, go to acrobaticsports.com.

Introduction by Bertz
Just think, you are living in the late 1920s, and you love tumbling and diving, but you want to take it farther. You want more spring to try harder tricks, but how can you do that? That is just exactly what George Nissen was thinking before he turned the idea of a circus safety net into what we know as the modern day trampoline.

I was more than honored to have a meeting with not only the inventor of the trampoline, but the forefather of the sport of trampoline, George Nissen. George, who after graduating college, followed a concept and turned it into one of the most loved inventions of our time, and it continues to grow. But it didn't all happen by itself. It took a lot of work and traveling on George's part to spread his invention to other parts of the world and make it a popular invention. Eventually, through hard work, the sport of trampolining would be born and has been recently instated in the Olympics starting in 2000 in Australia.

Even though the trampoline is George's most popular invention it is hardly his only. He has over 35 patents registered in his lifetime and has been honored in the Inventors Hall of Fame.

This is what George had to say about the past, the present, and the world of trampoline:

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Acrobatic Sports: George, what was your first introduction into the acrobatic world?
George Nissen: Really I was in junior high school, and we had a physical education teacher by the name of Paul Kridler. He was a gymnast and he liked tumbling. In the junior high school, we put on some exhibitions and things for the high school, junior high and the YMCA. We used to do some pyramids with the parallel bars and other acrobatic stunts. I just loved that. More and more, I got started with tumbling. We had diving, and we had a coach who was a young fellow in college and he would coach us at the YMCA where they had a swimming pool. We had no pool at the high school, but we had a high school team that worked out at the YMCA. So, by the time I got through high school, I was really tumbling and diving.

Then I went down to the University of Iowa which was about 25 miles away from Cedar Rapids, where they had a good gymnastic team and a good diving and swimming team. Dave Armbruster was a great coach. Actually, I liked tumbling best and I used to go and see acts when we had Vaudeville. I also liked the hand balancing, and I trained with a partner, Xavier Leonard [NB: who became the coach of 1964 World Champion Dan Millman], and worked with him for many years. So, I considered acrobatics as hand balancing, gymnastic, tumbling, and diving.

Acrobatic Sports: You are the inventor of probably one of the most incredible and diversely used acrobatic devices of all time, the trampoline. What made the light bulb go off in your head realizing this concept?
George Nissen: I don't think there was any special light going off. The Ringling Bros. circus would come to Cedar Rapids every year in the summer, and my brother and I would go. We actually did carry water for the elephants to get admission. When we watched the circus, we really enjoyed the flying trapeze performers, especially their dismounts. If they missed, they would fall to the net. But they would also dismount to the net and then they would rebound with another trick. I said, "Jeez, if you wanted to, you could keep rebounding into other tricks,? and that is where I got the basic idea.

Acrobatic Sports: When did you start working on your concept for the trampoline, and was it something you worked on alone or were others involved?
George Nissen: Actually at the University of Iowa, Larry Griswold, who was the assistant gymnastics coach, and Mike Howard, the wrestling coach, were involved in the first one we made at the university. We wanted this for the annual Circus that we put on in the Physical Education department. I mainly worked with Larry Griswold.

Acrobatic Sports: How did you come up with the name trampoline?
George Nissen: Well, there has been a lot said about that. After I got out of college, I practiced with Xavier Leonard and another boy Bob Parry, and we had this little trio act we called The Leonardos. We were booked at the Texas Centennial and the Carnival of Lakes in Texas. Anyway, we performed there, and we would perform at any kind of circus or place that would want the act, like state fairs and celebrations. Then, we went to Mexico, as we heard there was work in Mexico City. By hook or crook, we got down there and auditioned. I could talk for hours about all the experiences we had in Mexico. We performed for several months at a nightclub called the El Retiro. Vincente Miranda, the owner, had several establishments there, and they had acts at the nightclubs and several of the theaters. So, we worked there as a hand-balancing act, and I also did tumbling. We stayed at the YMCA where they had a swimming team. The coach was a graduate of Springfield College, in the United States. We had a good swim team there, and I remember we all had nicknames. So, I went out for diving because I had been at Iowa the year before and made All American on the diving team. I soon learned all the names of the dives in Spanish and the Spanish word for diving board, "el trampolín." In South and Central America, "trampolín" still means the springboard used in a swimming pool. I just put the "E" on it.

At the YMCA on Sundays, we had swim meets and exhibitions in gymnastics. On the swim team, we all had nicknames, "Chocolate" (Blacky), and "Pollo Frito" (Fried Chicken), and "Ballena" (Whale) etc? Anyway, we all had our names. Pollo Frito was an excellent swimmer, and he could swim 100 yards in under a minute. They called me "Campeon", (Campeon de Trampolín), and boy I liked that. So, when I came back from Mexico, I guess I was enthralled with the name Campeon de Trampolín, that I wanted to keep the name for my invention. Others started copying. They had these names like "Acro-Mat Tumbleen" and similar names. I used to meet people and they would say, "How are you doing with that 'rigmarole' you are making?? "The trampoline,? I would say. I wanted them to get used to that name and get the name established, and they would say "What was that again?" "TRAMPOLINE," I would tell them. I said that until other people were coming up to me and saying, "Jeez, I saw one of your trampolines in Scottsdale, Arizona in a Jump Center.? And I had to tell them that that really wasn't a trampoline but some other kind of rebound equipment.

Acrobatic Sports: So was it a product name or a brand name?
George Nissen: It was really a registered trademark Nissen Trampoline with Nissen disclaimed apart from the mark.

Acrobatic Sports: So, when someone started seeing a trampoline, whether it was a Nissen or not, they started calling them trampolines?
George Nissen: Oh yes. Otherwise, it was called "Magic Carpet," "Bouncer," "Tumbleen" or some other similar sounding name, or as in South America and some other countries where we went to later, for example, in Cuba it was called "Catro Elastico" or "Botador," but also in some places they just called them a "Nissen."

Acrobatic Sports: This is a little bit off the topic, but I have a couple friends who have original Nissen Trampolines, and they will not part with them. It is like owning an antique or classic car to them. They are quite famous, and it is rare to have one of the original frames and stuff of a Nissen Trampoline, so the branding is there. Was there any kind of marketing research that you did or testing before you decided to put the trampoline up for sale?
George Nissen: Well, nothing that sophisticated, we just tried to find somewhere it could be used. That was just some add-on thing that I never thought about at the time. After I got it into a YMCA camp, where a friend that I had in college was a leader, and that's where I took the first experimental tramp to the camp in Central City, near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Of course, I wanted it to practice my tumbling. The kids just flocked to it, and in Iowa in the summer, it gets hot, and they really didn't have a swimming pool, but had the river, which was not too clean, yet they all wanted to get in swimming. But the kids would even miss swimming to get their turn on the trampoline. I thought, "Jeez, the kids all like this so much." Here is the trampoline that was at the YMCA camp, and that would be about 1936. (George shows me a picture of the trampoline)

Acrobatic Sports: It looks fairly large!
George Nissen: Yeah, an angle iron frame with angle iron braces mounted on two by four cross braces!

Acrobatic Sports: So it basically took off because kids liked it?
George Nissen: It was fun, but it did not take off. I would take it to shows, like one at the Omaha YMCA, where I actually sold one. I found a company over in Indiana to make some. We didn't have welding in those days. We had fittings and castings back then. We made up about four, and I took them out one at a time and actually sold them by doing demonstrations.

Acrobatic Sports: Didn't they somehow end up in the Army or one of the Armed Forces?
George Nissen: Well that was a little later, but yes! It wasn't that you just put it on the market. We tried to sell them anyway we could, so we had to put together some manufacturing and assembled them in the basement of my dad's place and his garage. I got someone to sew up the canvas, went to Chicago and got springs from a spring company and tried it, but of course, the first ones didn't work. The idea was to make one that was big enough to be safe, yet small enough that you could pack it up to take any place. You know, so you could fold it up on purpose, not while you were using it. (Laughter breaks out) We finally got one made. This was quite a bit before World War II. My dad said, "Well, you sold these now. You pretty well saturated the market, so now when are you going to get a real job?" Because I was spending all my time working on this. (Laughter) He was right! (Laughter).

Acrobatic Sports: How did the sport of trampoline begin in the USA and what was your involvement in that development?
George Nissen: Well, I always thought, "Jeez, wouldn't that be great." I was at university, and I saw competition in gymnastics and diving. So, I always thought it would be great to have competitions in trampoline. So, that is where we got started. I always told my dad that it would be in the Olympics some day, and he would say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah! It will be the year 2000 before that could happen." (Laughter) The first step was to get it into competition in the schools, especially Universities with gymnastics programs. At the University of Iowa, I had competed in gymnastics and always thought of getting the trampoline to be another event in gymnastics, and all through the years, I have stayed close to gymnastics, especially designing and making improvements in the equipment for competition. As you probably know that, since 1966 the college gymnastics highest honor, the Nissen Award has been presented annually at the NCAA gymnastics championships to that year's outstanding gymnast. It is the Heisman Trophy [NB: Award presented to the best college football player] of gymnastics.

Acrobatic Sports: So, you got trampoline into the schools, but how did you come up with the 10 tricks and that part of it?
George Nissen: Oh, that was easy! There were a lot of ways we wanted to do it. We wanted to do it like gymnastics where you had A moves and B moves, and you had so many bounces, and that all evolved. One of the people who worked on that was Bob Bollinger. We thought it important to make the competition on the trampoline to be compatible with gymnastic and diving competitions. Later, we would sit down in the lunchroom at the factory off our gym and tried to make it as objective as possible. At first, we thought some repetition would be good as in dancing or figure skating, more beauty of it. But a lot of coaches and competitors were always talking about the difficulty. As in diving, you can have a lot of difficulty, or you can be a really good diver and beat someone with more difficulty. We tried to match it up so you get both.

Acrobatic Sports: So, you get trampoline into the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) sport of gymnastics, did you have to approach the NCAA?
George Nissen: No, it was through the different coaches at the colleges. It didn't get started until after World War II. Before World War II, I went around and tried to sell to YMCAs, and schools, but many of the physical education teachers seemed to be going into the service. So, I went to Pensacola, Florida for the Navy and did an exhibition there. Even before that at Randolph Field, Texas, we weren't in the war yet, but there were a lot of pilot cadets in training at all those airbases. They would march out a cadet battalion, and we would demonstrate and actually let them bounce, and show them how to do seat drops and few other easy tricks. I got pictures that made the newspapers, and so I took the next stop which was going on to the Navy base at Pensacola, Florida, and I told them, "Gee, we are at the Air Corps base at Randolph Field," then they said, "Well, why didn't you come here first?" So, there was a little competition started up between them, and they were really for it.

Where it really got started was the year before. I had taken the trampoline on the school assembly programs. You know, they have these programs every month or so. They really liked it because we had the apparatus there, and we could get the kids on it. Of course, we could handle the safety because we were there to supervise all of it. I would say, "That would be great for the school," and they would reply, "Well I am going into Tom Hamilton's program in the Navy at the end of the term, and I won't be at the school." So, when they got into the service and they started to set up the training program, these guys said, "Yeah, you got to have the trampoline in here." So, we got it into all the Navy pre-flight schools. When I got out of the service and after the war, that is when we started competitions. It was quite easy because everyone knew about it. Acrobatic Sports: So how did it ever get to a World Championhip?
George Nissen: Getting a World championship wasn't so hard. The Olympics was really hard. Well, to get to the first World Championships, they were at Royal Albert Hall in England, and we set that up with Ted Blake.

Acrobatic Sports: How did England get the trampoline? Did you go there?
George Nissen: Yeah, I went there. After the war, I went there and worked with Ted Blake. I thought I should get some places to make trampolines in Europe, because they couldn't buy them. So, I thought maybe we can make them there.

So, we organized a tour through a booking agent for our act to perform in theaters in Europe. Between these shows we had time to investigate the possibility to manufacture in Europe and decided there would be less problems in England than in Holland and Germany because of language and restrictions on technical things. So, I wanted to set up a place and I wanted to work with a company over there. I found Ted Blake, a physical education teacher in Brentwood that had shown a lot of interest, and had once tried to buy a trampoline from us months before. He turned out to be a very capable person; one of the best we had work for us. He arranged for us to do some tours around there. He also got us established to begin the set-up for eventually manufacturing and marketing in Europe.

Acrobatic Sports: Did other countries start catching on to it after England?
George Nissen: Well, they didn't start catching on. We had to go over there first and open their eyes and demonstrate. In Germany, we had to go and do shows just like we did in the USA. We had to go to Austria, Italy, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland, and even Russia and Finland. We worked with Kurt Bachler who managed the company that we set up in Switzerland. Kurt was involved with us bringing the first trampoline to Europe after the war. Much later, in 1958, Kurt Bachler was instrumental in organizing the first Nissen Cup in Wasen, Switzerland, which became ever since a yearly event held in August in Switzerland. Each year, various towns in Switzerland bid for the honor of holding the competition. The Nissen Cup is the oldest and probably best known regular international Trampoline competition.

Acrobatic Sports: England then held the first World Championships?
George Nissen: Yeah, with Ted Blake, and we worked together. I already had the company over there. We sponsored that at the Royal Albert Hall. But later the International Federation was started in Germany, and we backed off and gave everything to them, and we cooperated with them.

Acrobatic Sports: So that is how the FIT (International Trampoline Federation) got started?
George Nissen: Yeah! They started after the first world competition and Ted Blake was actually the first president. But later, he thought he shouldn't do it because he was with our company, and it was the policy of our company not to get involved with sports politics or judging. Why? Because we were selling trampolines and not fighting for the politics of the sport. We would set up the equipment and sponsor clinics for the sport but tried not to get involved with the actual competitions.

Acrobatic Sports: Tumbling and Double Mini trampoline were later added disciplines to this sport, how did this come about?
George Nissen: I worked with Bob Bollinger who had a trampoline club in Rockford, Illinois where we experimented with the idea of using a mini tramp to mount on trampolines.

Acrobatic Sports: Well, I remember we used to compete on two separate mini tramps.
George Nissen: Yeah! We made it all into the one. It was developed to find a better way for kids to experience their basic desire to jump from one trampoline to another trampoline and to dismount from the trampoline to the ground. We always wanted to keep kids from dismounting on to the ground like they did from other gymnastic equipment. On trampoline, you have to start and stop on the trampoline; it is the only way you can do it safely. But on the double mini tramp. you are really dismounting from the trampoline. When we developed the double mini tramp, I thought we could replace the vault in gymnastics with it, but there is so much involved in tradition that it is very difficult to make even minor changes in the gymnastic events or equipment.

Acrobatic Sports: So when you were developing double mini tramp, you thought this was a replacement idea for the vault?
George Nissen: Well that was one idea, but it was also for another event in trampoline. We would take it to shows and when we did demonstrations, like Egypt, we had a double mini, and it was great for exhibitions.

Acrobatic Sports: How did tumbling get involved in Trampoline?
George Nissen: In the 1930s tumbling was one of our events in all our gymnastic meets; college, AAU, and even Olympics. But then later, it was replaced by floor exercise by the FIG and then USA gymnastics organizations followed so as to conform with the Olympic events. Then, when Sports Acrobatics was started as an international organization, tumbling was one of the events with its own set of rules based on the Russian and East European Sports Acrobatic format. It was soon one of the most exciting and popular events in Sports Acrobatics. When the FIT (International Trampoline Federation) realized this, they immediately began including a tumbling event in their competitions. And for several years, both organizations had a tumbling event with different rules. Resolving this conflict was a problem that had to be dealt with when they merged with the FIG to get into the Olympics.

Acrobatic Sports: So, how did the sport of tumbling get started in the USA? I mean, you had trampoline and then tumbling came into the sport later. How did that get started?
George Nissen: Really, we had tumbling in the Olympics in 1932, when Rowland Wolfe won it, because there was no free-ex then. It was out later because it was not with those European classic traditional gymnastic events. But even today, you can probably get many more kids involved in tumbling than in any of the other gymnastic activities. All you need are some mats. We had to make competition for it. In Sports Acrobatics, they could just run down the mat and do one pass. When I went to school, it was the event that I really liked best. We had longer passes, and we did five passes in a competition.

Acrobatic Sports: So, you took that type of tumbling into the sport of Trampoline in the USA?
George Nissen: Yeah. Then, the AAU (Amateur Athletic Association) and the NCAA had a big battle for years as to who was in control. The AAU had the national recognition with the international FIT group, so they had the power. They were amateur, and you had the amateur/professional deal going on. So, they got the deal. Some countries, like Japan, thought if you had a paid coach, you were a professional!

Acrobatic Sports: You mean, if I was a paid coach, my athletes would be considered professional?
George Nissen: Yeah!

Acrobatic Sports: What was the primary goal of the USTTA (United States Tumbling and Trampoline Association), and what kind of governing power did they have?
George Nissen: Well, you don't have much governing power over a sport internationally unless you are recognized by an international body. That USTTA was started in Cedar Rapids, with Ronny Munn, and he was going to get it going just to make a league and to have competitions not under the college's NCAA or AAU. But then, it developed into two split organizations, and one got International recognition and the other didn't, so you have to get permission from the one that is recognized to compete internationally. But our purpose was just to get the sport growing!

Acrobatic Sports: Yeah! And the USTTA did a good job of getting it going. I remember we used to go to both USTTA meets and AAU meets. Neil Godbey, my coach, felt we should do both.
George Nissen: That was the idea I had when we had AAU and USTTA. I used to keep plugging the AAU to keep them going. So we would have meets here and meets there. It was good for everybody. It was like having General Electric and Westinghouse; it was good for everyone!

Acrobatic Sports: Your wife Annie was an acrobat, and your daughters Dagmar and Dian were involved in the sport of trampolining. What was your family's involvement in the sport and in the Nissen Company?
George Nissen: I was with the company, and I lived and breathed trampoline. Annie was an acrobat, and I eventually got her into the act, and we were doing a trio with Frank LaDue. We went to Europe to perform our trio trampoline act and to perform at many sport functions and professional shows. She participated in all our exhibitions. She never did real tough tricks, but did some very beautiful and different routines. She could do splits in the air. We performed at the Gymnastrada and other big international sport functions.

Acrobatic Sports: What was known as AAU and USTTA trampoline and tumbling in the USA has merged with USAG, and the FIT merged with the FIG, how did you think those mergers affected the sport?
George Nissen: Well, it's all about the competition and international recognition and the directors of them. Where there is a big activity in trampoline and tumbling, and gymnastic is to have the age-group competitions. We started going with the age group competitions with the World age-group in Hawaii.

Acrobatic Sports: That was a great competition, just loaded with competitors from other countries.
George Nissen: There were other ones, but the age-group competitions are what bring out the kids. Anyway, an association like AAU or others like that, they don't care so much about the participants, but only want the international recognition so they can control the sport

Acrobatic Sports: Do you think the USA Gymnastics and FIG merger was good for the sport?
George Nissen: Yeah, I think it was. It is the final result of our 50 years of struggle to get it in to the Olympics.

Acrobatic Sports: You almost got trampoline into the 1980 Olympics, but in 2000 trampoline was finally in the Olympics in Australia. What was your reaction to this?
George Nissen: Well, I keep saying it is an anti-climax, because we went through all this political rigmarole. But really, it was a dream come true. It could have been in there in the 70s or 80s, but they just wouldn't do it. We met all their unwritten rules by establishing the sport in over 40 countries, and on all the continents and all their other requirements, but they just wouldn't take it, saying they were not adding any new sports. That is why we had to go in with gymnastics.