Boing.... Trampoline champion Karl Heger soars 10 feet....
Boing.... The kids at the school assembly say, "Ooohhh." ...
Boing.... Heger tops 20 feet, rising toward the ceiling....
Boing.... He readies himself for a series of triple-flips and
"Boof! All of a sudden everything went black," Heger recalls. "I
had pushed my head through a ceiling tile. And it was the
weirdest feeling, because I lost sense of everything. Then I
came flying down. The kids thought it was the funniest thing
they'd ever seen. They thought it was part of the show. But it
scared the hell out of me."
It takes a lot to scare Heger, a 34-year-old FBI agent who has
won a record 15 national trampoline titles. Along the way, he
has run into more than just low gym ceilings. In Germany nine
years ago, when Heger was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he
loaded his trampoline onto a five-ton ammunition trailer,
covered it with camouflage netting and hauled it along as his
unit headed out for combat exercises. In the field his buddies
couldn't see the trampoline, because it was hidden by a ring of
tanks, jeeps and trucks. But there was no mistaking Heger, who
rose and fell rhythmically over the motor pool, unfazed by the
helicopters roaring overhead.
When many Americans think of trampolines, they usually picture
kids cavorting in the backyard on a big toy. That's a far cry
from competitive trampolining, in which athletes perform
10-trick routines on an apparatus that costs about $8,000. The
sport is most popular in Europe, where Heger is well known as
the "wild American." He is believed to be the only person in the
world to have done the extremely difficult, and rarely
attempted, quad cody, a trick in which the trampolinist jumps
three stories into the air, does a 3/4 back somersault, comes
down and bounces on his chest, backflips 4 1/4 revolutions and,
if all goes well, lands on his feet.
Heger, 5'10" and a solid 170 pounds, has performed eight quad
codies, although he's less willing to try the trick these days.
He's married with two young sons, and his battered knees limit
his training to four 90-minute sessions a week. At this year's
nationals in early June he narrowly finished second to Ryan
Weston, 17. When Heger is not working out, he is working for the
FBI in the bureau's Rockford, Ill., office, where he regularly
assists the Metro Narcotics Unit with investigations and
"I can honestly say he was never afraid of anything," says June
Heger, recalling her son's childhood in suburban St. Louis.
While a toddler, Karl busted the hinges on a dishwasher door
because he used it so often en route to the cookie jar atop the
refrigerator. At age three he went higher, scaling a seven-foot
shed--and leaping to the ground. His perplexed parents signed
him up for trampoline lessons at the local YMCA.
It was love at first seat drop. Young Karl had found his sport.
So had thousands of others, for this was the 1960s, and
trampolines were everywhere. Not surprisingly there were few
instructors who knew what they were doing. Kids got hurt,
sometimes seriously, and a series of multimillion-dollar
lawsuits pushed insurance premiums for gyms through the roof. By
the end of the 1970s, most gyms had locked up their trampolines
or sold them. For $400, 15-year-old Karl got a used trampoline
from a YMCA.
He stored it in the backyard, under a bright-blue sheet of
plastic. On nice days, when June and her husband, Fred, glanced
out their second-floor bedroom window, they could see their
son--every two seconds or so.
He charged ahead, even as his sport was declining. He sought out
meets. At one event in Kansas City, his fearlessness and erratic
form caught the eye of Paul Swafford, who had coached several
nationally ranked trampolinists. "Oh, my gosh," Swafford
remembers thinking. "This guy needs help."
Heger was thrilled to finally find a coach, even one 240 miles
from home. Heger trained particularly hard on the double
minitramp, an enlarged version of the minitramps used by
acrobats and mascots who dunk basketballs during sporting
events. For the double-mini, which is one of the apparatuses
used in national and international competitions, the athlete
runs up to the tramp, bounces 15 feet straight into the air,
flips, twists, lands on the rear portion of the tramp and goes
airborne for a second trick, flipping, twisting and coming down
on a landing pad behind the tramp.
As Heger rose to the top of U.S. trampolining in the 1980s,
however, the sport continued to fall. Heger was lucky to find
three meets a year, and he regularly won national titles in
front of only handfuls of spectators.
After graduating from Northern Illinois University with a degree
in criminal justice in 1986, Heger caught the best bounce of his
career when he successfully lobbied the Army for a posting in
Germany and began training with the German national team. One of
the Germans who helped overhaul his technique was Ute Harz, who
was ranked ninth worldwide among female trampolinists in 1988.
"He had to relearn what he had taught himself in his backyard,"
The more Heger flipped with the Germans, the more he flipped
over Harz. They understood each other as only fellow
trampolinists could. How many brides, Heger asks, would laugh at
the stunt he pulled during their 1988 wedding? Wearing his full
military uniform, he said his vows and, joined by his best man,
English trampoline star Richard Cobbing, promptly dismounted off
the altar in reverse tuck position.
Heger dominated European double minitramp meets from 1987 to
'89. But it was on the regular trampoline that he made his most
memorable leap, in the Two-Trick Spectacular at the 1989 Nissen
Cup in Switzerland. The crowd of about 1,500, huge by U.S.
standards, started chanting: "HAY-gah! HAY-gah! HAY-gah!" Heger
called for an extra crash pad and then became the first person
known to uncork a quad cody at an international event.
Heger approaches the sport with more caution these days, for Ute
has decreed that sane training will be the example set for their
already-flipping sons: Kevin, 7, and K.J., 3. The Hegers
practice at a Rockford gym with crash pads, spotters and safety
harnesses, equipment that for years has made the trampoline a
relatively safe training aide for gymnasts and divers. "If
anything," Heger says of his transition from daredevil to FBI
agent, "I've channeled my craziness from the sport into my
intensity on the raids."
Sounds like bad news for the crooks.
Dan Morse, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, last bounced on a
tramp when he was eight.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG The audience mistakenly thought it was part of Heger's act when his head once popped through the gym's ceiling. [Airborne Karl Heger over trampoline]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Heger (third from left) keeps his adrenaline pumping as an FBI agent assisting on drug raids. [Karl Heger and four others raiding house]