An encounter at a University of Iowa swimming pool became a life-changing moment for Bill Sorenson and the future of gymnastics.
Sorenson not only became a successful gymnast, but his transformation of the sport through the innovative creation and development of equipment led to his induction in the Class of 2022 of the Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame.
As a freshman at Iowa, Sorenson was a competitive diver when gymnastics coach Dick Holzaepfel came to a practice at the pool and asked Sorenson if he “had ever been on a trampoline.” Sorenson quickly mastered the trampoline at a high level as he won gold and silver medals in the AAU National Championships and was the Big Ten Conference champion in 1953. After graduation, Sorenson moved to New York and became a professional trampoline performer at Radio City Music Hall and the Palace Theater.
After six months in New York, Sorenson returned to Jefferson, Iowa but “couldn’t get the trampoline craziness out of him.” He built his first trampoline, the Aqua-Tramp, in his garage and began making diving and recreational trampolines in the basement of his father-in-law’s hardware store.
In 1954, Sorenson founded the American Trampoline Company, which manufactured and sold a full line of trampolines, including those used in high schools, colleges and universities for gymnastics competition and physical education. The company became American Athletic Inc. (AAI) in 1957, produced a full line of gymnastics apparatus and protective pads by 1961 and became the official equipment supplier to the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF) in 1963.
Sorenson was the lead inventor on more than 10 patents for gymnastics equipment. AAI provided the competition gymnastic equipment for many major national and international competitions, including two Olympic Games, numerous World Championships, the Pan American Games and the Commonwealth Games.
AAI merged with Head Ski in 1968 and became the AMF Corporation in 1971. Sorenson became a group executive with AMF and oversaw companies such as Head Ski, Head Tennis, VOIT, Pacer Track & Field, AAI, Ben Hogan Golf and Hatteras Yachts. Sorenson had a major impact on product development for these brands, including patents for the Tip & Roll Bleacher and portable pole vault and high jump mats still used today.
In 1994, Sorenson became CEO of American Sports Products Group (ASPG). ASPG acquired Southwest Track (owner of Astro Turf), Sport Court, Basketball Products International, Connor Floors and American Athletic. Sorenson remained CEO until 2004. Although he was CEO of ASPG during the years AMF/AAI supplied equipment to world competitions, his contribution financially and high-level support enabled AAI to become one of the premier suppliers of equipment to the world and the USA-dominant market leader for more than four decades.
From 2002-18, Sorenson served on the board of Gill Athletics, which is now a holding company known as Litania Sports Group (LSG), which owns and manufactures the Gill Athletics and Porter Athletic brands. He also has a long history of service and honors in the gymnastics community. He served as chairperson of the Trampoline Sub-Committee of ASTM that wrote the first trampoline safety standard adopted by the U.S. government’s Consumer Product Safety Commission. He served as a member of the trampoline safety committee of the National Safety Council. Sorenson was inducted into the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1978 and the U.S. Trampoline and Tumbling Hall of Fame. He also served on the Board of Directors of the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame and in 2016 was presented with an award for promoting and growing the sport in the United States.
Sorenson’s contributions to the gymnastics world are undeniable. Under his leadership, AAI developed technically superior apparatuses that notably increased the safety and performance of gymnasts. AAI has been the most innovative and creative force in the manufacturing of gymnastics and related equipment in the world. It played a significant part in lifting USA Gymnastics and its athletes to world prominence that continues today.