Amped up in toyland

The next generation of stilts and pogo sticks, tweaked to the extreme, acquire a whole new cool factor

Amped up in toyland

Daniel Janossy on his souped-up stilts.

Amped up in toyland
Daniel Janossy on his souped-up stilts.

Daniel Janossy is running down his Toronto street at full speed on what look like bionic feet, his every airborne stride attracting stares. Dogs cock their heads as he lopes by on the flashy futuristic aluminum frames. The jumping stilts look nothing like the simple sticks with two triangles of wood that you may remember from your childhood. Welcome to toys 2.0, where jumping stilts can propel you over cars, scooters are made for tricks, not travel, skateboards wiggle on two wheels and kids do flips on amped-up pogo sticks.

Children are moving in new and extraordinary ways these days, and although there is an element of danger, the exercise benefits are not to be dismissed. But what makes these intense toys so popular? “I think there’s a drive for the extreme in our culture that wasn’t there 50 years ago,” says 22-year-old Nick Ryan, co-founder of Xpogo and Pogopalooza, two U.S.-based organizations devoted to extreme pogoing. “It’s a way for younger people to make their own sport and—to the horror of their parents—test the limits of their surroundings.”

At Pogopalooza, for example, 18-year-old Daniel Mahoney from Truro, N.S., managed a record-breaking nine-foot, six-inch high jump at the 2010 competition in Salt Lake City, Utah. This year, James Roumeliotis managed the most consecutive jumps on a pogo stick: 206,684. And Fred Grybowski holds the record for the most consecutive backflips on a pogo stick with 11.

Not all parents, it turns out, are horrified; some are inclined to see extreme schoolyard sports as the lesser of two evils. When Janossy, for instance, bounces down the street on his stilts, his parents are more than pleased he’s “testing his surroundings.” His mother, Eva, an engineer who emigrated from Hungary 25 years ago, believes kids should play outdoors. “It’s better than playing video games,” she says of her son’s jumping stilts. Four months ago, his father, Thomas, a former high jumper, brought them home from a neighbourhood toy exchange. Within days, Daniel was powerbocking (as it is called, in homage to the toy’s inventor, German aerospace engineer Alexander Böck) over garbage bins and terrifying local mothers with the thought that their kids might be inclined to do the same. “We’ve had to tell some of his friends,” says Eva, “that they can’t try it until their parents say it’s okay.”

According to Peter Fillipelli, a sales director for a stilt maker called FlyJumper, powerbocking shouldn’t worry parents because it has legitimate health benefits: “The downward force [required to jump on the stilts] is good exercise and aids in bone growth.”

The interesting thing is that it’s adults, not kids, driving the inventions. Brian Spencer, 40, was a seasoned skateboarder and BMX biker when, 10 years ago, he took up pogoing. All he wanted to do was go higher or, in his words, find an “easy way to get hang time.” But his pogo sticks kept breaking every few weeks. So he and his brother Eric and cousin Josh went to see his father, Bruce, an aerospace engineer, and said they wanted to build a “big-ass pogo stick.” Spencer told the boys that replacing the heavy metal springs in a standard pogo stick with the kind of air spring found in the average office chair would produce the effect they were looking for: height and more height. In 2001 the Spencers made the first Vurtego pogo stick prototype, which could bounce more than six feet (Mahoney broke the high-jump record on a Vurtego). “With the new pogo,” says Spencer, “the rider was the limiting factor, not the equipment.” In other words, the question became not how high could you go but how high did you want to go? Or, more to the point, how high would a non-adult want to go? “I knew that if I could jump this high myself,” says Spencer, “we had built something that kids would use to come up with some pretty gnarly stuff.” The added bonus for a middle-aged man? In a video for the company’s website, Spencer says that, try as he might, he cannot keep weight on.

Today, companies like Vurtego and Flybar dominate the pogo market and, thanks to social media and YouTube demonstrations, kids are documenting forward flips over picnic tables, turnovers and wall plants in record numbers. “Because of the Internet,” Spencer says,” a lot of kids have seen [what the Vurtego can do] and a large percentage go, ‘Whoa, that’s cool.’ ”

It’s precisely that cool factor that Ryan, a former “pogo professional,” had in mind when he and his friends formed Xpogo 10 years ago and Pogopalooza in 2004. “My goal from the first time I bounced on a pogo stick was to change the stereotype associated with the pogo, from something that is a lame toy to a cool and serious extreme sport.” With the holidays approaching, Ryan says he’s been bombarded with emails from parents of pogo-crazy kids who want to know which stick is best for beginners. “I tell them to go with the Foam Master,” he says.

Extreme toys may be a lot more fun than their predecessors, but are they safe? Ryan argues that extreme pogoing is safer than skateboarding, for example. “The skateboard has momentum,” he says. “With the pogo stick, there is no momentum involved, so if you’ve never done it, you don’t have the leg strength to go very high, and if you fall, you won’t fall very hard.”

Tell that to Canadian pogo prodigy Daniel Mahoney. The Nova Scotian teen is one of the best pogo-ers on the planet, and he’s brutally honest about the risks involved in pursuing his hobby at an extreme level. “I’m 18, I walk with a limp and I have serious joint problems,” he says. “I feel like I’m 10 years older than I actually am. I broke my jaw [pogo-ing] and I have two titanium plates holding it together.”

Still, Mahoney, who landed the first ever “Canuck Flip” at Pogopalooza this summer, intends to “keep progressing in his sport.” When Mahoney began doing minor tricks at age 12 on his sister’s pogo stick, he never imagined one day he would be a champion. Maybe that’s what makes pogo-ing and powerbocking (which has its own competitions, mainly in Europe) so appealing: you can go from your block to the big leagues. When it comes to bouncing up and down for fun, the sky’s the limit. As Vurtego creator Brian Spencer says: “This is the evolution of a new sport. Where it will end up, we just don’t know.”