The GREAT South African Trampoline Safari: Part 1

 by Dagmar Nissen Munn and Ron Munn

"How the Sport of Trampoline was Introduced to South Africa"

Image: Yathin sk
Since time began on the African continent 
only the springboks jumped up and down.

Springboks are long-eared cousins of the gazelle and possess the innate ability to jump vertically - - sometimes reaching heights of over sixteen feet! A height that went unchallenged until the year 1959 - - which was when the first trampoline landed in South Africa - - and humans have out-jumped the springboks ever since!

In South Africa, the new sport of trampoline grew and prospered so quickly that only fifteen years later, in 1974, Johannesburg was selected to host the 8th World Trampoline & Tumbling Championships. 

What follows is how the sport of trampoline 
was introduced to South Africa.

Our historical safari begins in northern Europe, when in 1954, a team of Swedish gymnasts accepted the invitation for a goodwill tour of the United States. The goal of this thirty state tour, orchestrated mainly by Gene Wettstone, men's gymnastics coach at Penn State University, was to give American gymnasts the opportunity to experience Olympic level competition. 

Eight of the Swedish gymnasts in the group had already competed for Sweden in the 1952 Olympics, and they looked forward to the opportunity to show off their skills against their American university counterparts - - by way of the many special competitions that were scheduled throughout their tour. 
Accompanying the Swedish team were two renowned gymnasts - - guest judge, Olle Areborn, and the group's interpreter, Helmut Rohnish.

When the group reached their midway point; Iowa City, Iowa, George Nissen extended an invitation for Areborn and Rohnish to come visit his Nissen Trampoline Company, located nearby in the city of Cedar Rapids. 

Developed in the 1930's by George Nissen and Larry Griswold, the modern trampoline had by 1954, been embraced by American colleges as a men's gymnastics apparatus event. This was the first time the two Swedes had ever laid eyes on a trampoline and immediately they became intrigued.

Trampoline students in Helmut Rohnish's class.
In Sweden, Helmut Rohnish happened to own a business that sold gymnastics apparatus, so once the tour was over, he contacted George Nissen and promptly placed an order for Sweden's first Nissen trampoline.

Swedish students learning how to trampoline.

Learning trampoline somersaults in Sweden.

By 1957 (six Nissen trampolines later) Rohnish organized the first Swedish Trampoline Championships, in Orebro, Sweden. 

Among the eager competitors was a fellow by the name of Sӧren Jonsson, who won first place in optional routines and second in the compulsory division. 

Meanwhile, for Swedish gymnastics coach Olle Areborn, 1956 found him responding to a newspaper advertisement seeking Swedish gymnastics instructors for South Africa. 

In South Africa, early forms of gymnastics had been practiced since the late 1800s. Initially used as a conditioning system for the military, the sport eventually evolved into the more traditional style that was practiced throughout all of Europe. Even though teams of gymnasts from South Africa regularly attended the Olympic Games competitions, they unfortunately up to this point of time had not won any medals for their home country. 

By 1956,  the Wanderer's Athletic Club in Johannesburg, under the direction of Dennis Simmons, had become the center for gymnastics training for all of South Africa. And Simmons believed it was time to improve his country's standing in the international arena so it was he, who placed the ads in several European newspapers searching for competent instructors  - - and it was Olle Areborn and his wife Ragna (a champion gymnast as well) who responded.

Following their arrival in Johannesburg, the Areborn's were an immediate success. Together they worked in the Wanderer's Club gym nearly eight hours a day, teaching novice through elite level classes with waiting lists for every class.

Being pleased with the Areborn's progress in Johannesburg, Simmons' next focus was on Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa. With approval from the South Africa Gymnastics Union, Dennis Simmons and Olle Areborn contacted Swedish gymnast (and now the Swedish national trampoline champion) Sӧren Jonsson, offering him a two year contract to lead the gymnastics program in Pretoria. Sӧren accepted and arrived in South Africa in December of 1957.
The Wanderer's Club, Johannesburg, South Africa - circa 1954

Meanwhile, the sport of trampoline had begun to take hold over all of Europe. 

George Nissen and his U.S. Nissen Trampoline Company, now had an additional factory in the U.K., under the able direction of Ted Blake. Kurt Baechler of Switzerland, was appointed Nissen's representative for Europe, and together from this strong base Ted and Kurt coordinated trampoline demonstrations, clinics and teacher training course throughout all of Europe and the U.K. 
Frank LaDue, Kurt Baechler, Annie & George Nissen, Duane Bruce
-1958 -

Ted and Kurt were soon joined by U.S. trampoline champions Frank LaDue and Duane Bruce, as well as George Nissen and his wife Annie. 

George and Annie Nissen receiving honors at the 
Nissen-Eterna Cup - Wassen, Switzerland - 1958

Nissen's promotional activity culminated with with the first all-Europe trampoline competition - -  the "Nissen-Eterna Cup," held in Wassen, Switzerland, in 1958.

Well aware of the trampoline's growing popularity in Europe, Olle Areborn and Sӧren Jonsson were eager to bring the new sport to South Africa as well. But, they knew that first they'd have to generate interest - - big interest.

So, late in December of 1958, Areborn invited George Nissen and his trampoline team to come to South Africa for a several week tour of demonstrations.

Of course, George thought it was a splendid idea and promptly organized the trip - - making sure that a trampoline was shipped ahead in order to be waiting for the group's planned arrival in March. 
Olle Areborn
Elated at the good news and wanting to ensure success, Areborn decided to introduce the trampoline across the broadest audience of South Africans as was possible. He lined up demonstrations at public events and government agencies as well as a number of college and universities throughout the land.

George Nissen, accompanied by his wife Annie, 8-year old daughter Dagmar and United States champion trampolinist Frank LaDue, arrived in Johannesburg in March of 1959.

Sӧren Jonsson, the Swedish trampoline champion, now teaching in Pretoria was invited along to join in on the demonstrations. The group followed Areborn's pre-arranged schedule which began with ten performances at the big Witwatersrand Easter Show in Johannesburg. 

At that time, the Witwatersrand Easter Show held the title of being the largest consumer exhibition in the world (outside of the U.S.); attracting several hundred thousand visitors annually. Besides hosting several large exhibition halls that showcased modern and historical displays, the highlight of the exposition was the daily show held in the grand open-air arena. And in 1959, the audience enjoyed viewing their first trampoline demonstration!  

George Nissen bouncing with the Captain  of
the Pretoria Police College - 1959
The team then traveled to Pretoria; South Africa's capital city. Wowing the crowds at the Pretoria Teacher's College, the Pretoria Police College and - - adding on several more performances for the Pretoria Agricultural Show at Milner Park.

George Nissen at the Pretoria Police College, Pretoria, SA - 1959

The final days of the trip were left open in order to enjoy South Africa's many tourist attractions. These included a tour of the local gold mining operations with performances by the Mine Dancers, plus a trip to Kruger National Park to observe animals in the wild.
Demonstration by the Mine Dancers

By the end of the tour, the Pretoria Police College was the first to order a trampoline.

In addition, George wisely offered to leave behind the Nissen trampoline that was used in the demonstrations - - a trampoline that Sӧren Jonsson gladly accepted. Sӧren took the trampoline back to Pretoria, and later during the same year of 1959, used it to open the very first trampoline school in the country!

L-R: George, Dagmar and Annie Nissen leaving South Africa in 1959

Although Olle was extremely pleased with how much had been accomplished so far, he knew he needed to keep the "trampoline momentum" going.

So, as 1959 drew to a close, Olle Areborn extended yet another invitation to George Nissen. 

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continue on to Part 2 

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CLICK HERE for Part 1
CLICK HERE for Part 2
CLICK HERE for Part 3
CLICK HERE for Part 4

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