Britain's fresh air force

Alan Hubbard finds the trampolinists heading for their first Olympics with a spring in their step

Trampolining is to make its Olympic debut in Sydney. What next, sigh the cynics, bungee-jumping and the flying trapeze? You might as well bring on the bouncy castle. Hey, hold on a minute, argue trampolining's growing army of advocates, here's an activity which is athletic, competitive, healthily drugs-free and spectacular. Perfect for the telly and good for the image of the Games. What's more we might win a medal - even two.

Trampolining is to make its Olympic debut in Sydney. What next, sigh the cynics, bungee-jumping and the flying trapeze? You might as well bring on the bouncy castle. Hey, hold on a minute, argue trampolining's growing army of advocates, here's an activity which is athletic, competitive, healthily drugs-free and spectacular. Perfect for the telly and good for the image of the Games. What's more we might win a medal - even two.

In the vast gymnastics hall at Lilleshall, Britain's national sports centre, the air reverberates to the sound of feet thudding on landing mats as pommel horses are vaulted and intricate somersaults perfected as the progress towards Sydney is checked and charted by clipboard-toting coaches. But it is the giant trampoline, ceaselessly creaking like a bordello's bed springs which holds the attention of the visitor. Up, up, over and up soar the Britons who will do aerial combat with the world's best in three months' time. There's elegance and energy as well as rhythm. And it looks so easy you are tempted to tell yourself: "I could do that."

"You probably could," says John Beer, director of Britain's national squad and Olympic coach. "That's the beauty of it. I could take anyone, put them on the trampoline and they're instant trampolinists, after a fashion anyway. It's a sensation you can't get anywhere else. You don't actually have to do anything. Even in a sport as simple as squash you have to hit the ball, but on the trampoline you just bounce. Kids can do it before they walk. You think you are going a mile high even if it is only a couple of feet. And if you land on your backside it doesn't matter, you don't get hurt."

That's the easy bit. The hard bit, as Beer explains, is when you decide that just bouncing up and down isn't enough. "Obviously the further up you go the more difficult it gets. When you start talking in terms of multiple twists and triple somersaults, you know that it's getting serious."

Although part of gymnastics, trampoline is the newest medal event in the Olympics, given the thumbs up after a demonstration in Atlanta and repairing a long-term rift with its parent sport. Here, it is again an arm of the British Amateur Gymnastics Association.

Internationally, its origins are said to be in the circus, after a 19th- century French tumbler named Du Trampoline came up with the idea of adapting the safety nets used by aerial artists as part of his act.The modern apparatus was invented by an American, George Nissen, and an Essex teacher, Ted Blake, brought it to Britain in 1950, when it was known as "rebound tumbling".

Britain staged the first world trampolining championships at Crystal Palace in 1964, and we have always been among the sport's high-flyers, with two male world champions, Paul Luxon (1972) and Stewart Matthews (1980). Sue Shotton was world women's champion in 1988 and in the year Matthews won his title, a 12-year-old girl, Erica Phelps, took the women's silver. If the name sounds familiar it is because her father was the Olympic diving champion Brian Phelps, who is now a national trampolining coach in Poole. Trampolining and diving share not only athletic qualities of skill and suppleness but also terminology, from back-flips to half-pikes.

Back at Lilleshall, 19-year-old Lee Brearley and Jaime Moor, 21, who will be Britain's Sydney representatives in the men's and women's events respectively, are literally walking on air. Medal-wise, their hopes are realistic. Brearley, from Eccles, Lancashire, who was British champion at 11, has suspended his art studies to train for the Games and is ranked seventh in the world. Moor, who has beaten the Russians in their own back yard to win the European Youth Championship, is from Northampton, and was ninth in the worldwide Olympic qualifiers. In Sydney only 12 nations will compete in either division and Beer believes podium placings are possible. "If they make the finals it will be brilliant, and once they are there the scores return to zero and the top placings are up for grabs."

Trampolinists are sport's 20second wonders. That is the time they get to do about 20 somersaults and a dozen twists, all judged on the same subjective system as skating.

Like the majority of trampolinists, the British top two began as gymnasts. Brearley took it up at his local recreation centre. "It's not fair to say trampolinists are failed gymnasts. Far from it. The two sports have quite different techniques and a lot of gymnasts cannot adapt because they can't get rid of some of their bad habits, like not keeping their heads still."

Moor, vivacious, with the muscular build of a sprinter, was captivated, like many kids, while on holiday at the seaside. "We used to go to Great Yarmouth and my parents couldn't get me off the trampoline. I was also into gymnastics and in the end I had to choose between them. I'm glad I picked trampolining. It's exciting. And it can be a bit dangerous."

At this level you can get hurt - she has had her neck in a brace after falling on her head. Although, like Brearley, she is able to prepare full-time because of the World Class Performance programme, she also works part-time in a bar. "It keeps a bit of normality in my life. I don't want to be a hermit thinking of nothing but trampolining." Eventually she would like to be a TV presenter, and there is certainly glamour in being part of this flying circus. Next month, however, they will be back down to earth at the Guildford Spectrum in Surrey, where Britain hosts the World Cup on 24 June. Some 138 competitors from 24 nations will be doing their fling.

Low profile it may be, but trampolining is soaring. Britain's 500 clubs all have long waiting lists, largely because it is now part of the GCSE sports curriculum. Secondary schools may no longer have cricket and football pitches but most have trampolines. As far as trampolining goes, the Olympic motto could not be more apt. Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, higher, stronger. As they are saying in Lilleshall, spring is in the air.

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