The springy, squeaky toy that bounced a few inches into the air has gone extreme. At Pogopalooza 7 in Salt Lake City this weekend, top pogo athletes are executing twists, turns and flips on high-performance aluminum tubes that catapult them eight feet or more into the air.
For generations, just bouncing up and down was enough. But not for pogo champ Fred Gryzbowski. "Just jumping up and down — it's like, why?" Gryzbowski says.
It didn't make sense to the 21-year-old from Ohio, who grew up in the era of extreme sports. He saw potential and started doing tricks like spins and jumping without hands.
"I thought, like, I invented this new thing," he says. "Extreme pogoing! And then I looked online."
Gryzbowski found a small group of kids who thought they were the ones who had invented the sport, too. They began swapping videos of their latest tricks on YouTube, and soon pogo technology started catching up. The new pogo sticks are filled with compressed air, rubber-bands or fiberglass. They look like high-tech jackhammers — and they're built to compete.
Seven years ago, a small core of jumpers created Pogopalooza, the world's only extreme pogo-sticking competition. Co-founder Nick Ryan hosts it in a different city each year.
"I want to see it become a staple of culture in the same way that skateboarding is and BMX is," Ryan says." I want to change the connotations associated with what a pogo stick is."
This year at the preliminary rounds in Park City, Utah, 30 of the world's best bouncers compete in four categories: big air, tech, best trick and high jump — which this year might clear nine and a half feet.
"When you're up in the air, it feels like you're flying," 14-year-old Dalton Smith says. He's the youngest competitor this year, in a sport where the seasoned pros seem to retire around 21.
"You gotta quit before you die, I guess," Smith says.
The sport is risky. The jumpers twist and flip and wipe out a lot. They stop for a few seconds now and again, exhausted, especially in an event called, "Most Jumps In A Minute," where skinny young competitors jackhammer away on their sticks. On other tricks, judges look for originality, height, execution and good landings. Helmets are required and elbow and knee pads encouraged. Ryan concedes that the sport has a way to go before it reaches the stature of BMX racing.
"If you just tell someone, like, 'I'm an extreme pogo athlete, I compete in the world championships of pogo,' they're walking away from you at that point," Ryan laughs. "But people laugh, of course people laugh. I would laugh."
But at Saturday's finals, the crowds won't be laughing — they'll be cheering when this year's pogo champions are crowned.