Trampoline coach Chris Martin heard someone shouting his name from the other side of the playground, and his chest tightened. One of his young athletes was standing atop the high monkey bars yelling for the coach's attention as others watched. The boy propelled himself into a back-flip off the bars and stuck a perfect landing in the dirt.
Once Martin got his heart out of his throat during that otherwise uneventful outdoor break at trampoline camp, he figured that kid might have the natural talent – and guts – for competitive trampoline.
Now 15 years after he started in the sport, that daredevil drive still fuels 25-year-old trampolinist Jason Burnett as he trains for his second Olympics. He now jumps so high at Skyriders Trampoline Place in Richmond Hill that he can grab the rafters and swing from them. His name is scrawled in marker atop a list on the club's measurement wall, which documents the most difficult of high-flying routines performed there.
He won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and holds a world record for degree of difficulty in a routine. His biggest competitors are the Chinese and Japanese, athletes who jump even higher and have more impeccable form. To contend in the London Games, which begin July 27, Burnett says he must earn his points with more challenging skills.
Burnett, who calls Nobleton, Ont. his hometown, started out at Airborne Trampoline Club in Woodbridge, Ont. learning under Martin for a few years before he literally started hitting the ceiling.
"His natural daredevil instinct helped him learn skills so fast – he had no fear," Martin said. "He loved to show off for anyone who would watch him, but we ran out of room to teach him new skills."
Martin helped Burnett move to Skyriders, which had a much higher ceiling and was home to long-time Canadian team coach Dave Ross and Olympic medalists Karen Cockburn and Matt Turgeon. "I was determined to be just like them," Burnett said. "I'd go ask Dave if I could try Matt's huge skills, and he'd say, 'There are a lot of things you need to do before you can go trying what Matt just did.'"
Joining the elite wasn't as easy as Burnett first thought when he arrived as a confident teen. He was progressing well when suddenly, he recalls, his training stalled at about 15. Burnett had crashed a few times in training and suddenly even simple skills seemed frightening and difficult. He had to fight through it if he hoped to represent Canada.
"You have to build height to do skills, but as I was getting higher and higher on every bounce, it got progressively scarier," Burnett said. "It really was a barrier to success for me at that age."
"You're rotating and you have no idea where you are, and you crash. It can be terrifying. The only way to get out of it is to start relearning all your builders. Your mind is telling you to keep learning, but the rest of you is saying, 'Don't do this, it's dangerous,'" Burnett continued.
"It deteriorates, and once you're afraid of even the simplest skills, you're done with trampoline. A lot of people end careers over that. Once you lose your nerve to try new things, you're stuck."
So he started relearning skills step by step and soon built up his confidence again. That nerve has since become his signature strength. His routine at the Beijing Olympics at 21 was deemed the competition's most difficult. A degree of difficulty score of 18.8 during the 2010 World Cup in Davos, Switzerland, smashed a world record. The 150-pound, 5-foot-8 trampolinist has scored as high as 20.6 for difficulty in training.
"Jason just really trusts his natural co-ordination and ability," Ross said. "He is definitely one of the lower-fear athletes in our sport. That and high skill level combine to give him an advantage."
Burnett broke his right leg in 2010 and had plates and screws inserted, which cost months in rehabilitation and lost training time. Preparing for the 2012 Games, the University of Toronto student has battled plantar fasciitis on the bottom of his left foot, inflammatory pain he fights by wrapping his feet and often training in warm slippers. He pulled out of a recent World Cup competition in Spain after injuring his left gluteal muscles but bounced back to compete in Switzerland at the final World Cup event. He continues to treat the injury as he perfects his Olympic routines.
"I like doing shows," said Burnett, who has also done some stunt work for films and wants to pursue more down the road. "People want to see something new and bigger. You learn something and impress everyone, but once they've seen it, you have to push yourself and learn something even better."