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The Godfather of trampoline in the U.S. (Hennessy Profile Posted in AN)

Grant Alexander • galexander@theadvertiser.com • August 15, 2008

He’s the godfather of trampoline in the United States.

He’s the father of a World champion.

Jeff Hennessy turned Lafayette into a hot bed of gymnastic activity and it’s safe to say that without him, this year’s U.S. Olympic team trampolinists – Erin Blanchard and Chris Estrada – would not be from Acadiana, but rather some other region of the country.

"I like to think so," Hennessy said. "Having these two young people come out of the same gym in Lafayette is the result of many years of trampolining here."

In his 26 years of coaching men and women on the trampoline, his pupils were awarded 26 World Championship medals.

And not a day goes by that he doesn’t miss it.

"It was a great experience for me. It was a lifetime of work," Hennessy said.

Hennessy’s roots in trampoline can be traced back to the origin of the modern trampoline itself – George Nissen.

"Back then it was a canvas held on by a plastic cord. It was like jumping on a drum," Hennessy said.

While a student at Northwestern State, Hennessy met Nissen during a trampoline promotion. He also met a buddy of Nissen’s, Ted Blake.

"We started doing crazy things on it like flips and what not and I became inspired to stay involved with it," Hennessy said.

His first job out of college was teaching at West

Monroe High School where he convinced the school to purchase a trampoline for physical education class. The sport began to grow, moving from a high school competition to an AAU event.

Hennessy was named chairman for the national trampoline organization and transferred to UL (then known as SLI) in 1960 with his wife Ruth and two children – Jeff Jr. and Leigh. There he started a trampoline program.

Hennessy purchased the first couple of trampolines himself and was delighted to find his students taking a liking to the sport.

"They had some talent," Hennessy said. "With a little work they picked up on the idea of how to do it well. The trampoline manufacturers found out about how well we were doing and furnished us with a couple of newer trampolines."

Hennessy knew his team was good, but he was ready to show the rest of the U.S. trampoline community. He signed up his AAU team, composed mostly of high school athletes, for a competition in Sarasota, Fla.

"Nobody knew us. We were just a bunch of country folk," Hennessy said. "We beat them handily. They were stunned. They couldn’t believe what they were watching."

It didn’t take long for the U.S. to offer Hennessy the head job for the country’s trampoline team. Stationed at UL, he coached the U.S. to nine World Championships from 1964 to 1980.

During that stretch he also coached 1969 Miss America Judith Ford. Ford had competed in the event the year before, but after a year with Hennessy her trampoline routine played a major part in her victory.

But the most important girl he ever coached was his daughter, Leigh.

"She had the best form of any girl I ever coached," Hennessy said.

Leigh holds the record for most U.S. National titles won by a woman, according to her Web site. She used her knowledge and athleticism to pursue a career as a stunt woman, her most notable role as the double for Demi Moore in G.I. Jane.

While Hennessy is proud of his daughter, he didn’t want to shift focus away from the current athletes.

"I think if they go out and do the exercise they are capable of doing and execute it well, they have a great chance of winning a medal," Hennessy said. "They do some very difficult routines."

Hennessy still has input with the U.S. trampoline team, but it’s mostly done behind the scenes. Trampoline and Tumbling Express owner Tara Guidry used to call him to see what she needed to put in her new gym.

He’s grateful for the time he had as coach.

"We got to travel the world with these great young people who were wonderful ambassadors for the United States," Hennessy said. "I wish I could do it again."

Athletic Network Footnote:  Please click the Photo Gallery, Gymnastics/Trampoline, and the year you wish to view. Team pictures from 1960 through 1982 are included in the collection.