American gymnastics legend George Nissen passed away on April 7 in San Diego from complications from pneumonia. He was 96.
Born Feb. 1, 1914, in Blairstown, Iowa, Nissen was a gymnast at the University of Iowa. After seeing the safety nets that protected circus trapeze artists, Nissen thought a smaller version could help him with his tumbling training.
In the 1930s, he and Larry Griswold, his coach at Iowa, built the first trampoline in a garage. In 1941, the Griswold-Nissen Trampoline & Tumbling Company was housed under a bigger roof in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
During World War II the trampoline was used to train pilots. After the war, Nissen continued to promote the trampoline and he also manufactured a complete line of gymnastics apparatus. "Leapin' Larry" Griswold became a successful entertainer with his trampoline act.
Nissen, who trademarked the name "trampoline" from the Spanish word trampolin (meaning "springboard"), took his portable bouncing device all over the world. (The activity was actually called "rebound tumbling" at the time.) He even gave Russia its first trampoline in the 1950s.
The first world championships were won by Americans Dan Millman and Judy Wills, in 1964 in London. Wills won the next four women's titles, and Americans won the next four men's titles, as well.
Nissen continued to promote the trampoline worldwide, and one of his biggest goals was to see it become an Olympic sport. His friends told him he was dreaming. "They said, 'George, it will be the year 2000 before trampoline is ever in the Olympics,'" Nissen told IG 10 years ago.
They may have been joking, but they also proved prophetic. Trampoline indeed became an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Games, and Nissen proudly made the long trip Down Under. He was even invited to take a ceremonial bounce on the official trampoline used in the competition.
Ironically, Russian athletes won the first Olympic men's and women's gold medals, thanks to Nissen's unselfish promotion half a century earlier. (In the U.S., trampoline had been dropped from NCAA competition in 1970, but the sport is now on an upswing in private clubs.)
Nissen's name will certainly live on. The Nissen Cup is an annual competition in Switzerland, and since 1966 the Nissen Award (now called the Nissen-Emery Award) has been given to the top male senior collegiate gymnast.
"I met George when I was a 12-year-old, just learning the rudiments of jumping on the trampoline," said Millman, author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior. "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."
Nissen is survived by his wife, Annie, and two daughters, Dagmar and Dian.
Funeral arrangements are pending.