PICTURED ABOVE // Junior Helena Perez-Stark bounds through the air during a trampolining competition, in which she competed in the double mini and tumbling events. Photo provided by Helena Perez-Stark.
The backyard trampoline: a staple for suburban families with one to 10 kids, where one twirls, jumps and continually attempts but fails to land a double flip. Unlike this popular childhood pastime, however, one Hockaday junior is bounding and leaping to new heights on a competitive level.
Meet trampolinist Helena Perez-Stark. As fourth in the nation in trampolining, a level 10 in trampolining and double mini and a level 8 in tumbling, out of 12 levels overall, she isn’t just messing around on her backyard trampoline.
For many, trampolining may seem to be a trivial and adrenaline filled activity, but for Perez-Stark it is much more. It is an intense sport with its victories, failures and plenty of memorable moments along the way.
“I love the adrenaline and trampolining is terrifying, but so worth it,” Perez-Stark said. “It feels like flying, which is a strange feeling, but you feel very free.”
Perez-Stark wasn’t always the flying gymnast, as her first passion was artistic gymnastics. After a rigorous schedule at such a young age, trampolining drew her in.
“The hours were so crazy. I was doing 20 hours a week when I was only 10,” Perez-Stark said. “I loved the floor aspect, but trampolining seemed interesting, so I tried it out, and I have been doing it for the past seven years.”
When it comes to training, she has hours that mirror most competitive athletes. Perez-Stark practices 15 minutes away from Hockaday, at the Palestra Gymnastics Center, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. She trains three hours after school and five hours on Saturday, with the goal of improving her skills and technique.
Perez-Stark’s practices consist of warm-ups, event rotations and then a warm-down. She competes in three different types of events—trampolining, double mini-trampoline and tumbling.
Trampolining is defined as acrobatic or gymnastic exercises on a trampoline. Double mini-trampoline is more complicated in that the area is smaller and consists of a sloped end and a flatbed. Gymnasts run up and jump onto the sloping end and then jump onto the flat part before dismounting onto a mat. During the jump, or as they dismount, they perform skills and routines. Lastly, tumbling combines skills of artistic gymnastics on the floor with those of trampolining.
During practice, she works on each event for 20 to 30 minutes, focusing on certain routines when competition season rolls around.
“The whole idea is to stay strong,” Perez-Stark said.
Perez-Stark recognizes that trampolining isn’t for the faint of heart and that it takes a certain type of adventure aficionado to fully appreciate the sport.
“People trampoline for a lot of the same reasons. We are all just adrenaline junkies looking for something to do,” she said. “We do have very laid-back people on my team, but we all love scaring ourselves.”
She practices on a team of around 42, called “The Sparks,” which includes gymnasts from seven to 20 years old.
Her fellow teammate of three years, Sophie Duesman, knows Perez-Stark well and has watched her develop over the years.
“Helena is very smart and self-driven,” Duesman said. “We all have so much fun cheering each other on during competitions and practices.”
Perez-Stark has competed in many events during her time as a trampolinist, garnering many awards and memories in the process. During the past seven years, she has won state champion three times in each of the three events. Her highest position in nationals was fourth and this past year, in 2017, and she managed to walk away with second in trampolining and sixth in double mini-trampoline.
Competitions are quick. It takes an average of 17 seconds to complete an event. Competitors compete in “flight” groups, which consist of five to six girls in each group. The higher the skill level, the fewer competitors you have to face.
“Competitions are nerve-racking, but I love getting the feedback,” she said.
Perez-Stark’s short-term goal is to move up skill level groups to Junior Elite, from the current level ten. The levels start out one through ten and then progress to Junior Elite and Senior Elite.
Mary Beth Weathers, Perez-Stark’s coach and the head coach and manager of “The Sparks” trampoline and tumbling team recognizes Perez-Stark’s potential and current capabilities.
“What sets Helena apart is her uniqueness,” Weathers said. “She is truly an astonishing young woman. She is the smartest person I know—adults and kids—and she is also very physically gifted. She will go so far in whatever she decides to pursue.”
Even though her dreams don’t consist of taking home a gold medal for her country at the Summer Olympics, she has been taught by the best, including past Olympic trampolinists.
“I have been coached by Logan Dooley, who went to the Olympics in 2016 several times,” Perez-Stark said. “He is such an amazing role model since he is 27 years-old. Even though he is young, he is old for trampolining and has been in the business for a long time. His skills are beautiful and amazing, like trampoline nirvana.”
Even with her intense passion for the sport and the many trampolinists who share the same fervor, she understands how many might not know about the unusual sport.
“I get a lot of ‘Oh, I have a trampoline,’ but it isn’t the same,” Perez-Stark said. “It would be cool if people knew that trampolining existed. A soccer player doesn’t have to explain their own sport.”
But for Perez-Stark, Weathers and the thousands of trampoline enthusiasts, trampolining isn’t just about competitions and death-defying tricks.
“The biggest reason people participate in trampoline is because it is fun,” Weathers said. “It’s literally like nothing else. It’s a huge adrenaline rush along with this calm and peaceful feeling of flying. The quick split-second moment of weightlessness in the air is why my upper levels do trampoline.”
Story by Paige Halverson.