Thousands of travelers from all over the world visited Sydney, Australia, for the 2002 Olympics. One such visitor, 86 years old George Nissen, was there not only to witness Olympic history, but the fulfillment of his life-long dream: to get trampoline competition into the Olympic program.
Born on February 3, 1914, in Blairstown, Iowa, George Nissen became a top gymnast in high school and won three NCAA championships while a student at the University of Iowa.
Nissen had seen circus trapeze artists use their safety nets as an elastic bed to rebound and perform additional tricks. And he thought this would be a useful training tool for his tumbling. Although earlier versions of trampolines were used for hundreds of years, modern trampolines were not invented until the 20th century, when George Nissen and his legendary gymnastics coach Larry Griswold developed the first modern trampoline in 1935, using angle iron with a canvas bed and elastic springs.
Nissen and Griswold soon discovered that trampolines were a crowd-pleaser in their own right. Nissen used it to help with his training, and to entertain children at summer camps.
Nissen's trampoline invention was immensely successful, and he toured the United States and Mexico, performing in arenas and at carnivals. He promoted the trampoline for most of his life, and was a strong presence in trampoline and gymnastics centers throughout the world.
Nissen was also famous for the wacky portraits depicting him bouncing on the trampoline in unusual circumstances. Perhaps the most famous was him bouncing on a trampoline with a kangaroo, and a notable photo was that of him using a trampoline that was placed on the Egyptian pyramids.
Nissen remained a fixture at gymnastics events around the world, where he could always be coaxed into bouncing on a trampoline, or doing his legendary slow press to a headstand on almost any surface, including the edge of a dinner table!
Building on his success with the trampoline, Nissen founded Nissen Gymnastics Equipment Company, which is one of the original gymnastics equipment manufacturing companies in the United States. Nissen's quality and durability were unsurpassed at the time – so much so that many pieces of Nissen equipment are still in use today, even though the company stopped producing gymnastics equipment in the mid-1980s.
In addition to his historic trip to Australia for the 2002 Olympics, eight years later, Nissen traveled to Beijing, China, with his daughter, Diane, and grandson, to witness the trampoline competition at the 2008 Summer Olympics. At 94 years young, Nissen was given the honor of testing out the Olympic trampoline before the event.
George Nissen died in San Diego, California, on April 7, 2010, at the age of 96. But his legacy as the inventor of the modern trampoline lives on, whether in Olympic competition or backyards all around the world.