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High, high hopes

A souped-up, air-powered pogo stick developed by an O.C. father-son team is getting some sales bounce at last.

January 24, 2007|Roy Rivenburg | Times Staff Writer

Superman is still the champ of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but mere mortals are catching up.

Aboard Brian Spencer's turbocharged pogo stick, humans can now bounce over cars, hop onto walls and perform other acrobatics normally reserved for a guy in tights and a cape.

"This stick is absolutely crazy," said Daniel Brown of xpogo.com, a website devoted to stunt pogo-stick jumping.

The jackhammer-sized contraption sprang to life about five years ago. While attending a family gathering in Orange County, Spencer overheard his cousin fantasizing about a gravity-defying pogo stick.

Intrigued, Spencer recruited his dad, a retired aerospace engineer, to start tinkering.

The result was a Frankenstein hodgepodge of BMX bike foot pedals, PVC piping and other spare parts -- powered by compressed air instead of a metal spring.

But when Spencer, who lives in Mission Viejo, took the prototype to an extreme-sports event outside the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he found the world wasn't quite ready for his $300 pogo stick.

Investors didn't want to back such a pricey toy so soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said.

Spencer shelved the idea and resumed life as a down-to-earth pharmaceutical executive.

Then, in 2004, a similar product hit the market -- the $300 Flybar jump stick, powered by giant rubber bands.

"At first we thought, 'Oh, we missed the boat,' " Spencer's dad, Bruce, recalled.

But after lining up some investors, the Spencers decided to try again. Working part time out of a home garage, they began assembling their Vurtego sticks by hand.

Today, armed with a world record for highest pogo stick hop -- 6 feet -- Vurtego sells through such retailers as Costco.comand claims such celebrity customers as Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and cyclist Lance Armstrong.

The company has sold about 5,000 pogo sticks since debuting last January, Brian Spencer said.

Vurtego's boing toy is "by far the most maneuverable" super stick on the market, said Xpogo.com's Brown, although he noted that some competitors offer a smoother bounce.

Souped-up pogo sticks have expanded the frontiers of human kangarooing, a pastime that began in 1918, when Illinois toy designer George Hansburg patented the first pogo. From the beginning, jumping up and down wasn't enough.

"People have always done such stunts as no-handers, jump-roping while pogoing, or 180-degree spins," Brown said.

Pogo enthusiasts have also jumped their way through weddings, bounced in Broadway shows and set records for hopping underwater (31 hours) and over land (23 miles), according to news reports.

Now, at national gatherings like Pogopalooza, they perform highflying acrobatic stunts with such nicknames as the one-foot soul grab and the ice-pick stall.

However, the future of amped-up pogo sticks is uncertain.

The high-tech toy could catch on like snowboards -- or fizzle into a passing fad.

"We don't know where it's going," Brian Spencer said.

But Vurtego is already plotting the next generation of pogo device, a stick equipped with a "gearshift" that lets riders adjust the air pressure as they hop.

roy.rivenburg@latimes.com

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