Today: George Nissen, trampoline creator who despite the skepticism it would never amount to anything, made it a global sport and an Olympic event.
If you have a good idea but haven’t pursued it because you think others will laugh at you, you will especially enjoy today’s column.
Born in 1914, George loved sports and became a top high school gymnast. And later as an Iowa University student, he became the national college champion gymnast three years in a row.
But one day when George was just 16, he attended a circus and was fascinated by the trapeze artists, as they sailed high in the air doing their tricks and then finished by bouncing in the safety nets below.
He noticed how high they bounced, some of them doing an extra trick or a flip. And suddenly he had a grand idea.
Make the bounce itself a sport as people could do all sorts of tricks. His imagination soared and he began working in his parents’ garage to create what would become a trampoline using a steel frame similar to an old bed, with canvas strapped across it.
But it wasn’t very springy and for a time the concept withered in the dust of the garage.
Years later, when George was majoring in business at Iowa University, and dominating gymnastic competitions, he and his coach, Larry Griswold, with the help of the engineering department went to work on his earlier idea. They developed what George called a “bouncing rig,” by using a more flexible structure with nylon covering.
After graduating from college in 1937, George and two of his buddies began touring the U.S. and Mexico, as the “Three Leonardos,” entertaining audiences with tricks on their bouncing rig,
While in Mexico, George heard the word “el trampolin” which is Spanish for diving board. He put an e on the end and trademarked “Trampoline” as the new name for his bouncing rig. Trademark or not, that name would come into common usage.
He and Coach Griswold formed a Cedar Rapids, Iowa company to make and sell trampolines, the Griswold-Nissen Trampoline & Tumbling Co. but there was very little demand. That is until World War ll when the U.S. military used them to train pilots and parachutists to be more acrobatic.
George served in the Navy during World War ll but after the War, demand for trampolines fell off until George began traveling the world, more than 40 countries, giving trampoline demonstrations.
In one publicity stunt, in 1960 he rented a kangaroo and set up a large trampoline in New York’s Central Park and he and the kangaroo bounced 10 feet high together, as George also entertained the crowd with flips and other acrobatics.
Years later, George put a trampoline on top of an ancient Egyptian Pyramid and began bouncing on it. But for the most part, he visited schools, participated in carnivals and in other shows to get the word out and persuade people to try it.
For George was not only its best salesperson, but by exercising on it and by the healthful way he lived his life, trampolines became a testament to good health.
Things were going well and then in the early 1960’s, George suffered a setback so serious, that it threatened the continued existence of trampolining itself.
Trampoline centers had sprung up across the U.S. and became very popular. That is until some people were severely injured for many of those centers didn’t teach proper trampoling techniques or take safety precautions. Some centers surrounded their trampolines with cement walkways.
The trampoline center fad passed fast when lawyers began suing and the media showed some of those severely injured people.
But after all those years of hard work building the reputation of trampolines, George would not let a great concept die because of the trampoline centers that misused it. He informed the media as to why these accidents happened and he gave demonstrations using proper techniques.
During those demonstrations, George often stood on his head in a classic handstand position to show what marvelous condition he was in as part of healthy living which he reminded everyone the trampoline played a major part.
Eventually the trampoline regained its reputation as a valuable piece of athletic equipment.
But George’s dream was not only to put trampolines in common usage but to make trampoline competition an Olympic event, seemingly impossible with so many other sport available. Even after selling his business in 1973, he never stopped trying or giving demonstrations.
It took 27 more years of perseverance but finally, at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, George’s lifetime dream came true. Skeptics were silenced when trampolining officially became an Olympic event. 86-year-old George was the guest of honor and he bounced on the official trampoline.
In that Olympic competition, the first trampoline gold medal winner came from Russia, and it was George who introduced trampolining there in the early 1950’s.
In George’s personal life, in 1951 he married Annie De Vries a high wire circus performer and the couple had two daughters, Dagmar and Dian.
In “retirement” George settled in San Diego but remained active as ever. At the NCAA gymnastic championships, which George attended every year as a guest of honor, in 2006, at the age of 92, he stood on his head for the crowd.
George continued to give media interviews, entertain on his trampoline and do handstands until late in his life.
On April 7, 2010, 96- year-old George passed away from pneumonia at UC San Diego Thornton Hospital in La Jolla. He is survived by Annie, his wife of nearly 60-years and by his daughters and sons-in-law and by a grandchild.
But he is also survived by trampolinists across the planet and by others whose ideas were at first scoffed at until those ideas made a wonderful change in the world.
Success Tip of the Week:
If you have a good idea, ignore the skeptics and make this the week you act on it. It may change the world, but even if doesn’t it will change you as you learn from the experience and you feel better about yourself for having the courage to try it.
In the next KazanToday:
An untrained songwriter with a 2nd grade education who became the biggest selling songwriter ever.