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Saturday, September 23, 2000

Trampoline revels in its moment in the sun

  SYDNEY -- Karen Cockburn, Canada's trampoline queen, understands the circus.

 All to the good, because yesterday the circus found her.

 The 19-year-old Torontonian secured Canada's fourth medal of these Olympic Games and the first by a Canadian woman. Cockburn won the bronze and, for a kid whose defining moments come when she is alone in the clouds, Karen Cockburn has a remarkable ability to keep her feet on the ground.

 Trampoline is a new addition to an already bloated Olympic menu. By its very newness, the event is a novelty. But it demands as much athletic grace and courage as the rings or the horse.

 As Cockburn's coach, Dave Ross, explained yesterday, most movements involve double rotations. If you go off one degree, you find yourself on the mat.

 Yesterday's event, won by a sanguine Russian named Irina Karavaeva, was trampoline's coming-out party and there was a lot of hopeful talk that one night in the spotlight will lift the sport to a new strata of legitimacy.

 It isn't true, at least ... at least not altogether true.

 Some Canadians will now clutch Karen Cockburn to their bosom because she won a medal. How she did it -- a last-minute blowout by the favourite from Germany -- and the apparatus she did it on, are incidentals.

 And, God bless her, Cockburn, a tender 19, knows it.

 We are not about to become hooked on trampoline, just transfixed for a moment or two.

 "It's like the circus," Cockburn said. "People can love the circus, but they don't follow it around from town to town."

 Karen Cockburn is the daughter of a mom who works at a furniture manufacturer and a dad who bakes for the Open Window Bakery. She gravitated to tramp as a 12-year-old because she found herself looking forward to her weekly trampoline sessions more than her regular gymnastics. She is also deathly afraid of heights.

 "I won't go to the edge of a balcony and I'm terrified of the CN Tower," she said. "My friends go bungee jumping. I would never do that."

 The earth is much more complicated than the sky. Imagine toiling in anonymity for years. And then, at the 11th hour, the fourth place finish Cockburn had been slotted into by her Olympic judges was shifted to an unexpected bronze. Suddenly, Karen Cockburn belongs to all of us. Her life is today's story, her personality and the way she copes with sudden fame, is now open to the media's unforgiving scrutiny.

 Is she shy or shocked? What are her values? Tell us more, Karen.

 "This kind of attention is new to me," she said, blushing amid the prying questions. But the kid showed the same grace on land as she did in the air. She understands the circus.

 "A lot of trampoline competitors, when they're through competing, join Cirque du Soleil," she said. "I have a lot of friends who are performers, I go all the time."

 Too perfect. Canada's newest trampoline queen is the product of a union between a mother whose company makes sturdy furniture and a baker whose employer has chosen as its symbol, the unending spaces just past an open window.

 She is afraid of heights but attracted to risk and she bears the hype of the Olympic Games with a natural ease because she frequently attends the circus.

 And tell us Karen, when your career is over, will you go into the circus?

 She makes a face. "Naw," Karen Cockburn said. "I don't think so. I want to keep working on my business degree."