KEWANEE — Lenny Burden does not want to put on the white unitard with red shoulder straps. Not one bit.
One can hardly blame him. First of all, it’s a unitard and thus not the world’s most comfortable attire. Secondly, after spending the day with his girlfriend and her father on their boat, Burden is sporting a nasty sunburn that gives him lovely red sleeves to go along with his outfit.
But Burden’s coach — Patti Lingenfelter, the owner of Patti’s Gym in Kewanee — wants him in the unitard. And since the sign in front of the door to Patti’s Gym says, “No whining,” there’s little he can do about it.
Burden needs to get used to the unitard anyway. It’s the outfit he’ll be wearing at what will likely be his last performance at the United States Tumbling and Trampoline Association’s National Championships.
Burden, a 2005 Hall High School graduate, is one of the few elite trampolinists in the United States. He’s a member of the USTA National Team and was the recipient of the 2003 Griswold-Nissen Cup Award, which is equivalent to a Player of the Year award in team sports.
After wowing judges with his mid-air acrobatics for the past eight years, Burden is just about ready to hang up his socks and ankle braces. But he still has one more National Competition to go as he begins the championship today in Hampton, Va.
The Thursday before nationals, Burden goes to Patti’s Gym in Kewanee for one last practice prior to the big competition. Patti’s Gym is a 40-minute trip from Burden’s home town of Bureau, but Burden has found the eight years of trips back and forth to be well worth it.
“It’s like a high you can’t really explain, kind of like sky diving,” Burden says of trampolining. “People are always like it’s a high you can’t explain. It’s kind of like that.”
“You can’t have any fear,” Lingenfelter says. “You have to be gutsy. That’s how he got started on his backyard trampoline.”
Burden got started even earlier than that, though. He went from cartwheels in the grocery store and jumping on the furniture as a 5-year-old to double back flips with a full twist a dozen years later.
“He got in trouble quite often,” Lenny’s mother, Michelle Burden says. “But that should have been my clue.”
Burden’s mother got him off the furniture by enrolling him in a tumbling class when he was in kindergarten. It didn’t take then, but four years later, he got involved in tumbling once again at Pebble’s Gym in Princeton.
He did two years there before moving on to Patti’s Gym, where he was introduced to the trampoline.
Burden didn’t immediately take to the trampoline. In fact, the pair were quite unfriendly at first.
“I was always afraid to go on the trampoline at first,” Burden says. “I was really afraid of it.”
“He was very shy when he started,” his mother says. “Very, very shy. His first day here — we have a bench down the side — and he just sat on the bench and watched them. And Patti kept trying to get him. ‘Do you want to come out?’ And he just kept looking at her. She was like 45 minutes into the practice before she got him to get out on the floor.”
But Burden overcame his shyness to make friends with the other children at the gym. And that helped him to conquer his fear of the trampoline, too.
“I got to be good friends with everyone here,” Burden says. “And they talked me into going on the trampoline. I thought it looked fun, but I thought it looked scary because I was watching the really good kids go and I was like, ‘Wow!’ Then I found out that there are lower levels you can do. So I was like, ‘All right, I’ll try it.'”
It was a match made in the heavens Burden now attempted to jump toward. He learned quickly as he went to Patti’s Gym three times a week for two-hour sessions. Burden became accomplished with the trampoline, power tumbling (imagine a very bouncy airplane runway on which participants do flips until the runway ends) and the double-mini (two smaller trampolines placed together on which the participant jumps, does a trick or three and then vaults off).
Burden’s best event is the double-mini, although he is skilled enough to compete at the elite level in all three.
But he knows at nationals anything can happen, so Burden goes into the competition with a good attitude that reflects his maturity for someone his age.
“I’ll pressure myself to do well,” Burden says. “But if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.”
“I think he’s had a lot of good life lessons out of this,” his mother says. “No. 1 is taking the good with the bad because they could practice day after day after day and do it right. But when you get on that competition floor, you’re in the moment and if it doesn’t happen for you, it doesn’t happen for you.”
For the most part, though, it does happen for Burden. He can do tricks off the trampoline that many would get sick in the stomach just thinking about.
But with these skills comes negatives, as well, like injuries and others’ attitudes.
“When I first got into high school, (people would ask), ‘Are you gay since you’re a tumbler?'” Burden says. “I was like, ‘No.’ Then when they saw me do the stuff they were like, ‘Wow, that’s cool.'”
He’s had good luck with injuries. Burden hasn’t had a major injury, but his ankles are in sore shape and he has to heavily tape them when trampolining.
“You can’t help but get scared once in a while,” Burden’s mother says. “I’ve seen him fly off the tramp a couple of times. He’s made me hold my breath quite a few times.”
“Every time you get on the trampoline you have to think something could happen to you,” says Burden, who once watched a participant snap his ankle at nationals one year. “But that’s part of the fun of it. It’s like a roller coaster. Something bad could happen, but this is fun at the same time.”
Burden will attend Illinois Valley Community College next year and says that focusing on his studies is one of the reasons he thinks this will be his last trip to nationals. He doesn’t plan on leaving the sport completely.
Burden plans on judging those who will be taking his place on the trampoline in the future. After eight years of competing, he knows what it takes to succeed at this sport, as do the judges who watched him.
“He has determination,” says Julie Forsythe, a former judge and current coach at Patti’s Gym. “He’s going to work through pain and anything that stops him. He’s just going to work straight through it.”