Taking a bounce to new heights

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Matt Hamel took a class three years ago at Emilia's Acrobatics, Gymnastics and Cheerleading in Columbia that introduced him to gymnastics' multiple events. He also learned a little bit about the trampoline.

Konstantin Gulisashvili helped teach that class and was on the lookout for good athletes to help build a new competitive trampoline team in the area.

He pulled Matt aside after one workout and quietly asked if he would be interested in joining.

Matt accepted the offer and rapidly became a force in the trampoline world.

He is the Maryland, northeast regional and national Junior Olympic champion for boys 15 and 16 years old, and is headed to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., next week for the World Age Games Team Trials.

The Glenelg Country School sophomore will be seeded fourth in his age group, and a top-four finish at the Aug. 30-31 event would earn him a trip to Germany for the world competition this winter.

"I'm not really sure what to expect," the 15-year-old said. "But my coach has told me that as long as I do a clean routine, I should have a good chance at going to Germany."

Matt is a level-10 performer in a sport with 12 skill levels, and said he is expecting to advance this year.

Trampoline competitors face situations much like gymnasts, having to do a 10-skill routine in less than a minute.

Three judges rate the performances.

Matt said that earning a perfect 10 is very tough, but he scored in the low 9s at the national meet in Sacramento, Calif., last month.

"It's mainly based on your form, and how nice you [look], and how good your skills are," he said.

Matt performs a large variety of moves during his routine -- which is not set to music like some gymnastic routines.

His skills include flips, double flips with a half turn, double flips with two half-turns.

All of these are performed consecutively and bounce after bounce on the trampoline.

Gulisashvili, who has his own club, said he takes pride in how hard Matt works at his craft.

The teen-ager often practices about 15 hours a week at Fairland Regional Park's indoor trampoline facility in Laurel to prepare for competitions throughout the year.

The sport of trampoline is growing rapidly. About 1,600 competitors took part in this summer's Junior Olympic nationals.

Trampoline was an exhibition sport at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and became a medal sport in the 2000 Games, giving athletes such as Matt a new goal.

"He's still young, and he's got time," Gulisashvili said. "The average age for trampoline [competitors] in the Olympics is 25-27. Only a few people get there, but he could have a shot."

Matt's father, Arthur, said people have not always realized that trampoline is a competitive sport by itself.

"You just say gymnastics, and then you say trampoline, and people don't always understand right away," said the elder Hamel. "But it's very much like a gymnastics meet."

Matt loved the sport right from the start. He works on trampolines that are about 4 feet off the ground.

The springs and bed of the rectangular trampolines are very tight and can send him surprisingly high into the air.

"My arms can get about 20 feet off the ground," he said. "It's a really neat feeling. Sometimes you get this weightlessness. It's different, and kind of hard to explain."

Matt has had two major injuries during his three-year career.

He landed awkwardly and broke an arm once, needing surgery to put in screws and two plates. The other was a foot injury that required a soft cast.

The trampoline has helped take the young athlete across the United States. He has been to Sacramento, San Antonio and Indianapolis, with Colorado Springs next.

If he qualifies for the world competition in Germany, that would be his first chance to show what he can do overseas.

But success comes with a cost. Matt can't try out for any sports at Glenelg County School because of the time he spends working on the trampoline. He understands this and is not upset about it.

"He really thinks the world of [the trampoline]," his father said.

Matt hopes to go places in the trampoline world.

Some colleges are beginning to look at giving scholarships to trampolinists, much as they do for gymnasts. Matt could shoot for that or take a run at making the Olympics.

But for now, the Colorado Springs competition is first on Matt's mind -- and his coach is optimistic.

"He has good coordination, and he learns skills really quickly," Gulisashvili said.

"He works hard to fix his mistakes."

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