Bob Bollinger

Florida A.A.U. Tumbling

It was his life
Bollingers career culminates with Hall induction

By Marc Correnti
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Photo provided

Gymnastics coach Bob Bollinger of Rockford (third from right) poses with trampoline pupils (left to right) Ron Marriott (1976 double-mini world champion), Marilyn Stieg (second in 1974, third in 1972 in worlds), Wayne Miller (1966, 1970 world champion), Alexandra Nicholson (1972, 1974 world champion and 2002 USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame inductee), Joy Umenhofer and Robbie Bollinger in this undated photo.
Published: August 9, 2006

ROCKFORD Bob Bollinger sits on his living room couch staring out the window pondering his past, present and future.

The past is written; he’s one of the world’s most well-known figures in gymnastics, both as a coach and an athlete.

The present sees the 76-year-old battling terminal lung cancer, limiting his future and deciding his fate.

In 1948, he placed second in the Illinois state high school diving championships. He also finished first in the Chicago city championships and first in the Central AAU one-meter competition.

He started the first outdoor center in Sycamore and founded Trampoline Town U.S.A.
In 1960, he coached Nancy K. Smith to national championship in trampoline and two world synchronized championships with Judy Wills Clinein.

In 1964, he attended the first World Trampoline Championships in London, England, as USGF women’s coach. That same year, he also won the C.H. McCloy Research and the Nissen Research awards at the National Gymnastics Clinic in Sarasota, Fla.

In 1965, he created the Axial-Rotation System by which all trampoline competition is judged today. The system is also used to some extent today to determine difficulty in competitive diving.

In 1969, he coached Belvidere’s Judi Ford to the Miss America title. He also appeared with her on the Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1970, he invented the double mini-tramp. That same year, he, along with others, founded the United States Trampoline and Tumbling Association (USTA).

In 1972, he was inducted into the USTA Hall of Fame and won many coach of the year awards.

In 1996, he conceived the idea of establishing a World Acrobatics Society, serving as its executive director and chairman of the Gallery of Honor Committee.

The Rockford gymnasts amazing career will culminate with his induction into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame on Aug. 18, in St. Paul, Minn.

He has looked forward to that night his whole life. Its the final chapter in a book that details nearly 60 years of gymnastics excellence.

He won’t be there to see it.

I’m very saddened, said Bollinger, who is hooked up to an oxygen machine. I just couldn’t do it. It means the world to me to be inducted into such a prestigious hall of fame.

Bollinger’s gymnastics career began in 1937 in Shanghai, China, during the Sino-Japanese War. Bollinger, then 7, went to a reception at the British Embassy, where he witnessed an acrobatic dance performed by the Chinese 29th Army Big Sword Corps. The Chinese acrobats turned somersaults as well as other aerial tactics.

I got an interest right then and there, Bollinger said. They were unbelievably fascinating to watch. They did so many tricks and acrobatics. They were a great influence.

When Bollinger returned to the U.S., he developed a springboard from an old Ford car seat.

I used to spring off the seats and do aerial backwards somersaults, he said. I took some bumps, but it was fun for me.

Bollinger, who was born in Kenosha, Wis., moved to Rockford in the 1940s. He continued his gymnastics career here while also starting a swimming and diving career that would rub off on his son, Rob Bollinger.

Rob, who will accept the Hall of Fame honor in his father’s absence, said his dads influence helps him in his career as the artistic director of the Cirque de Soleil O Show in Las Vegas.

I have him to thank for a great deal of my career, Rob said. My interest in gymnastics and swimming is all a credit to him. It was something he loved, and Im just happy to be carrying on the tradition.

Bob Bollinger listed his highlights as: appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show with former pupil Judi Ford, whom he coached to the 1969 Miss America title; coaching future Olympic bronze medalist diver Ron Merriott in trampoline; the invention of the Axial Rotation System, and being inducted into the four halls of fame in three different sports.

The Axial Rotation System, developed in 1965 and still used today, helps judge the degree of difficulty in gymnastics and also in diving. The system awards one point for each quarter rotation on the lateral axis and one point for each half rotation on the longitudinal axis. Under Bob Bollinger’s system, a double forward somersault and a double twisting backward somersault are both worth eight points.

It was something that was revolutionary at the time, he said. Its probably the thing that Im most recognized for.

He also invented the double mini-tramp, which is a narrow 14-foot-long trampoline. You run and bounce on the first half of it before leaping over an object. It is used at the World Championships.

The other halls of fame Bollinger has been inducted into are the United States Trampoline/Tumbling Association, World Acrobatics Society and World Age Group Championships. He is also the chairman of the World Acrobatics Society Gallery of Honor.

To be in so many halls of fame is unbelievable to me, he said. Its nothing I could have ever imagined.

While his professional career has been marked with highlights and achievements, his health took a turn for the worse last October.

Having already gone through quadruple bypass heart surgery, Bob Bollinger’s doctor discovered the cancer in his lungs. Doctors told him his condition was incurable.

They did some radiology treatments that shrunk it a little bit; Bollinger said holding his index finger and thumb about a quarter-inch a part. But sooner or later it’s gonna take.

While Rob said he is delighted and honored to accept the award on his fathers behalf, he feels melancholy heading to St. Paul.

I’m very proud and happy to go there for him, but Im sad that he couldn’t be there, he said. It was his life.

Bob Bollinger even grows tired after talking for 15 minutes, pausing more often between words and for longer stretches. He retires to his bed, fatigued. His wife, Susan, helps him back to his room, but Bollinger stops to offer these words:

Its a fascinating life that I wouldn’t trade for anything else, he said. When you’re on your deathbed, you ask, what was significant?

The whole thing was significant.