The trampoline just doesn’t enjoy the same status as artistic gymnastics. It’s relegated to a status even lower than rhythmic gymnastics by most of the press. (And I have a special place in my heart for rhythmic gymnastics.) Nobody goes wild for trampolining? Maybe some network executives and the world at large should see more of Dong Dong, the Chinese trampolinist who took the gold medal yesterday. And the sports journalists who heap ridicule on trampolining and rhythmic gymnastics? Well, trampoline-deniers: stick to the NBA and Nascar and put a sock in it. New champion Dong Dong’s name pronounced in English (his first name and family name have distinct tones in Mandarin and are not interchangeable, as suggested in the jingoistic humor in half the English-language pieces I’ve seen) has probably given you a field day with facile, puerile double-entendres. But try to put a lid on it. Or get up on the contraption you mock as a childhood toy and show me what you’ve got. I’m expecting more than Dong Dong (董栋), so you’d better steel your nerves.
Certain elements of the artistic gymnastics program terrify me. The balance beam seems to invite broken ankles and spinal injuries, and sometimes I can barely keep my eyes open during dismounts involving multiple flips and blind landings.
The vault doesn’t leave me any more relaxed, probably because I can’t even conceive of trying it. I could make my way, nervously, across a balance beam, albeit using the same method as I did on my playground beam fourteen inches off the ground – looking down at my feet for each cautious step – but the vault would be a no-go from the get-go.
The trampoline is at least more accessible to me. Like scores of other kids of my generation – let’s call it the olden days, before anyone thought to use a safety net – I bounced on one completely unsupervised in a neighbor’s back yard with a Jackass mentality well before Jackass debuted to inspire a new generation to play around with beehives. Plus, there was Olympic-level peer pressure to go high as high as the nearby treetop, along with making flips – as well as jostling multiple kids all on the apparatus simultaneously, which made for some unpredictable landings as well as numerous body crashes.
One day we even dragged a forgotten mini-tramp out of someone’s basement to use as a launch/landing pad. I think it was then that we finally attracted the attention of an adult, and the danger-filled days of unlimited, unsupervised tramping came to an unhappy but undoubtedly fortunate end.
Yet even with our multiple-tramp set-up, we were no Dong Dongs.
Dong Dong, London’s newly minted gold medalist, makes me fear the trampoline as much as the beam and the vault – by bouncing ten meters into the air, with the flips and twists I’ve come to expect from the 10-meter platform divers, except that he has to continually provide his own momentum as well as land on the tramp over and over while gearing up for the next 10-meter ascent.
Here is a clip from Dong Dong in 2011. Note the spotters. He is jumping higher than my two-story house! How are they going to catch him? Dong Dong is a brave soul. I won’t climb that high on a ladder.
I happened upon a trampoline as an adult, and while I quickly found the same ease that I had as a child to bounce high, once in the air, my longer, heavier body felt unwieldy, and as I looked down from a peak height, I pictured not the next bounce, but me landing with one leg trapped in the springs and the other dangling off to the side, with my pelvis splintered on the thinly padded steel ring providing the circumference for the trampoline. I quickly bent my knees and made that high bounce my last. Ever.
So I have a respect for the trampoline.
Dong Dong just upped it. Not only did he reach crazy heights and maneuver his body like a flexible pipe cleaner in mid-air, he made landing after landing on the “x-marks-the-spot” in the center of the canvas. In contrast, Lu Chunyong, the defending gold medalist who earned the bronze this year, flew almost as stunningly high as Dong Dong, but his random landings seemed to put his footprints on every square inch of the stretched fabric, making my worst-case scenario with dangling legs wrapped in metal coil and pelvic fragments littering the floor more vivid than ever. He was lucky to get the bronze and not a stretcher.
Dong Dong landed center square time and time again. Here he is during the final test phase of the London Olympics:
And if you still doubt trampolining merits its place in the Olympics, just imagine having to do synchronized trampolining. Dong Dong does that too, as you can see from his routine with Tu Xiao in 2011.
So with Dong Dong as the beaming new face of trampoline gold and rightful member of the Olympic pantheon, the time has come for the sport to receive the recognition the world owes it. Maybe they should mix up the routines more. I want to see wilder landings, even if they mean subsequent lower jumps. And perhaps, if they were to start doing their synch routines on a single trampoline like I did as a child with hyperactive neighbors, – hopefully without the aggressive shoving and inevitable collisions – I think trampolining could escalate to the figurative heights it deserves. Could I also suggest a mini-tramp for mounts and dismounts. I think I have one in the cellar that I’d loan out. Forever.