Pogo stick jumpers turn toy into extreme sport

Christen DiClaudio | January 6, 2010    

Like most other days, Fred Grzybowski was still tangled in his sheets, surrounded by the plain… Like most other days, Fred Grzybowski was still tangled in his sheets, surrounded by the plain custard color walls of his Los Angeles home at 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 22. He had his laptop propped against his knees, watching YouTube videos to pass the time.

“Well, I guess I should go pogo,” he casually suggested over a video chat.

He rolled out of bed, put on a pair of black jeans and a bright blue T-shirt that read “Pogo Dudes.”

Grzybowski is, according to many members of the pogo stick community, the best pogo stick rider in the world.

The hardcore background music pumped him up as he taped his wrists and as an afterthought, substituted a shower with a few swipes of deodorant. Then he was off to his backyard, pogo stick in hand.

We all have that classic image of a pogo stick: a steel frame with a thick spring running down the middle.

It’s the toy our parents bounced around on and the one that some kids still find under their Christmas trees, though it has since become somewhat of a rarity. But it’s not the one Grzybowski, 20, and his fellow jumpers mount every day. Instead, they bounce on a new and improved pogo stick called a Flybar stick — a larger and hoppier version of the traditional pogo stick.

To call the Flybar stick a toy would be misleading. Flybar, a branch of SBI Enterprises, designed a stick in 2004 that was larger and could support weight more appropriate to an adult. Veined with 12 heavy-duty rubber bands, the Flybar is better equipped for more intensive riding, including flips and jumps that have reached as high as the world record 8’6”, set last summer in Pittsburgh by 16-year-old Dan Mahoney of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Thanks in part to fanatics like Grzybowski, Mahoney and many other young athletes, pogo stick riding has overcome its image as a low impact pastime for children and has been resurrected as an extreme sport. And it’s receiving a lot of attention.

Jay Leno and Ellen Degeneres have both interviewed Grzybowski on their respective television shows. Pogo excitement landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in August. There have been highlight clips on MTV and debates on ESPN over whether to consider jumping an official sport. Even acrobatic performance group Cirque du Soleil has shown interest in the art of jumping.

Last summer, Pittsburgh hosted the sixth annual Pogopalooza, the only annual national pogo stick competition. It was organized and hosted by CMU junior Nick Ryan, who said the first five Pogopaloozas were very unorganized. One was held “in a parking lot of some ice cream shop on a highway, in the woods with, like, six people from around that area.”

This time, participating jumpers hit some Pittsburgh landmarks for Pogopalooza 6, including Mount Washington, PPG Place and the Roberto Clemente Bridge. The main event took place in Schenley Plaza and hosted 60 participants, ranging in age from 13 to 24. People from 23 states, Canada and England hopped.

The competition included heats such as “Best Trick,” where the athletes showed off their most impressive stunts, “Most Jumps Per Minute,” where participants bounced up to four times per second and the “High Jump,” where riders jumped over a bar that was raised higher and higher as they cleared each height.

Even though press and word of mouth are persuading many teenagers across the U.S. and beyond to start jumping, the sport still has a long way to go.

“I think there are more people jumping out of airplanes,” Flybar sales chairman Paul Treacy said jokingly.

He acknowledged that many sports in the same realm, like snowboarding and skateboarding, took almost a decade to be recognized as legitimate.

No different from other athletes in the genre, participants amaze onlookers as they shrug off injuries such as brush burns, chipped pelvises and broken teeth and cheek bones. They just hop back onto their sticks and try to land their next trick.

“To date we have very few injuries that have been reported,” Treacy said.

With that in mind, flash back to Carnegie Mellon’s Nick Ryan, who is a rare exception to the safety record of pogo sticking so far.

Ryan’s story begins in 2002 on the streets of York, Pa., where his disappointment in a silly Christmas gift quickly morphed into a diehard enthusiasm for everything pogo. He shared his love with some friends, and before they knew it, the “Pogo Squad” was performing in local parades and coining new stunts. Not surprisingly, they had little competition, and Ryan became one of the founders of jumping as it is known today.

May 12, 2006 was a typical, action-packed day for the Pogo Squad until Ryan got home. He felt severe neck pain, but wrote it off as a minor annoyance rather than a serious injury. Suddenly, debilitating pain cut through his right arm. It passed after several minutes, and he decided to take it easy. He caved into the couch and reached for the remote control to watch TV.

“The weirdest thing happened, it was like my hand reacted too slowly,” Ryan recalled. “You know, you tell your body to do things and it’s instantaneous, you don’t even think about it, so with this I was like, ‘What the hell is happening?’”

Ryan refused to go to the emergency room, so his mother took him to his general practitioner. When he was called in to see the doctor, he wiped out right on the waiting room floor. He was not scared; he was annoyed. The entire right side of his body felt heavy and exhausted and he was unable to move it.

The doctor was baffled and promptly loaded Ryan into an ambulance and sent him to the ER. The doctors ran numerous tests to determine his condition and kept him there for the next four days, he said. He was miserable. He was not allowed to eat or drink and went through countless CAT scans and MRIs. He wore a neck brace and had blood work. He felt unhappy not knowing the reason why his body was behaving this way.

On day four, Ryan’s health was declared stable — “as in I wasn’t going to die” — and he was given the green light to eat. His nurse delivered him a slice of pizza and a glass of water. He was thrilled to finally have nourishment, but when he touched the pizza with his left hand, it was way too hot. No problem, he thought, he would just take a nap and try again when it had cooled off. He woke up after about three hours to find that his pizza was still burning hot.

Ryan experimented by dipping a few fingers into the glass of water. It felt like it was boiling. When the nurses found out they sent him for more tests.

The scans finally showed a small bruise that had formed on vertebrae C2 through C4 of his spine, near the base of the skull, where the nerve endings controlling motor functions and sensation are found. The bruising closed off his ability to feel pain and temperature on the left side of his body or to feel anything at all on his right side.

Ryan was then sent to Magee Rehabilitation Center, a hospital in Philadelphia for the paralyzed. He spent about a month there, surrounded by people who had varying degrees of paralysis. Spending weeks in the hospital was certainly not enjoyable, but he stayed chipper, telling himself, “Reality is reality, and you can choose to be either happy or sad about it.”

After day eight of living in Magee, he retreated to his single room and set his mind on making his right side move. He picked up his hand and stared at his pointer finger for at least 20 minutes, trying with all his might to make it move.

“I was sweating, I felt like I was running a marathon, but I wasn’t doing anything except looking at my finger,” he said.

Ryan’s finger twitched slightly. It was all he needed to build his hopes back up. Although he was a medical wonder — his case stumped numerous physicians in medical conferences — he was certain he could train his body to function normally again. And he could not wait to get back on a pogo stick.

Ryan envisioned himself where his friend, Fred Grzybowski, is now: making a living out of jumping. After his injury, though, Ryan declared — with input from his family — that it was in his best interest to keep his feet on the ground. He dropped out of the pogo circuit and went to college.

But Ryan simply could not keep himself away from his passion. He made a radical comeback by joining on the business end of pogo sticking, and he now plays a major role in promoting the sport.

“It has grown so much since I was in it, but it’s still incredibly underground,” Ryan said. “I think that with the proper presentation, this could literally become an extreme sport in the X Games.”

As participants flip off their pogo sticks, push the limits to jump the highest or the farthest, and even bounce with no hands or on one foot or a combination of the two, picturing these boys, and some girls, in the X Games is not hard to do.

Around 6 p.m., the sun began to set in Los Angeles. Fred Grzybowski moseyed back into his apartment and plopped back onto his bed. He was calm and nonchalant.

And Nick Ryan remembers the days when relaxing and pogo sticking were his way of life. He shakes his head and grins.

“It was a ridiculous life,” he said with a slight sigh.

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