Twelve-year-old Kellon Mitchell spends about three hours a day honing his skills, getting ready for the national championships, which the Air Force Academy will host later this month.
It’s a big time commitment, but it’s Kellon’s favorite sport, and face it: You don’t make Team USA, the way Kellon has, without putting in hour after hour of practice.
His speed at this point is blinding.
“I’m one of the fastest in Colorado, and 15th fastest in the United States,” said Kellon, a seventh-grader at STEM Academy in Highlands Ranch.
Kellon is a cup stacker, or as those involved in the sport prefer to call it, a sport stacker.
It involves stacking and unstacking plastic cups in preset patterns. Because it’s timed, it’s often as not just a blur of hands and colored cups rising from the table to form a pyramid.
Cup stacking comes of age in Colorado
It’s not exactly a sport indigenous to Colorado, but the activity came of age here, and Colorado is home to the World Sport Stacking Association, the sports governing body, located in Englewood.
Credit Bob Fox, a former Douglas County physical education teacher, with taking a trick he saw performed on The Tonight Show 22 years ago and turning it first into an elementary school phenomenon, and eventually into an international obsession with competitions for all ages.
“I first saw kids stacking plastic cups on Johnny Carson in 1990,” said Fox, who founded the WSSA and who launched a company, Speed Stacks Inc., to promote the sport. “At that time, I was a classroom teacher and I performed professionally as a juggler. It reminded me of upside-down juggling.”
Five years later, Fox moved from the classroom to the gym. As a PE teacher at Coyote Creek Elementary School in Highlands Ranch, Fox was looking for innovative ideas to engage students in physical activity.
He introduced circus skills such as juggling and unicycling into his PE class. He also introduced cup stacking.
“My kids just went nuts over the concept. I had to start an after-school stacking program just so I could move on to other things in the regular PE class.”“My kids just went nuts over the concept,” Fox said. “I had to start an after-school stacking program just so I could move on to other things in the regular PE class. I had 200 kids sign up for after-school stacking.”
Fox began sharing his technique with his colleague. He was invited to give presentations at PE conventions. In 1998, he and his wife launched Speed Stacks, and he put together a curriculum, videos and lesson plans that other teachers could use. He soon left full-time teaching behind to concentrate on his new business.
“I love to share this because it’s so magical to kids, particularly kids who haven’t found a physical activity that’s really theirs,” he said. “In this, they can compete on the same level as those kids who are more athletically inclined.”
Stacking whiz: “Gym wasn’t my thing at all”
That was certainly Kellon’s experience. He has asthma, and he struggled in other sports. He learning about stacking when he was in the third grade, and he hasn’t stopped since.
“I wasn’t good at basketball or football or baseball. But then I started stacking.”“Before I started, gym wasn’t my thing at all,” Kellon said. “I wasn’t good at basketball or football or baseball. But then I started stacking. And because it improved my eye-hand coordination and my dexterity, I started getting good at catching footballs and hitting baseballs.”
His mom, Patti Mitchell, could not be more pleased.
“He’s not a sportsy kind of kid,” she said. “So when I heard about stacking, and about all the physical benefits, I got on board. Kellon’s made good friends through stacking, and it’s been a great experience for him. And you’d be amazed how fast kids pick it up. After a few days, they can just rocket. It’s mind-boggling.”
Across the nation, PE teachers agree. At Cherry Creek’s Independence Elementary School, PE teacher Alex Caran has just introduced his classes to stacking for the year, and the students adore it.
“It gets your adrenalin pumping,” said Isabel Joseph, 11. “It’s really fun.”
Andrea Ekiko, 11, says stacking is her favorite sport ever. “Last night I was practicing at home,” she said. “When I stack, it makes me feel like everything else is gone. It makes me feel like I can really accomplish something.”
Caran has part of his students work on the basic 3-6-3 stack, while others do more complicated stacks. Others take part in more active events, running from stack to stack. He periodically collects them in the center of the gym to talk strategies for improving their times.
“The fifth-graders have been doing this for several years, and they’re really good at it,” Caran said. “But even the youngest ones learn it really quickly.”
PE teachers add stacking to physical activity drills
Cory Oliver, executive director of the WSSA, says he hears from PE teachers across the country who, like Caran, regularly incorporate stacking into their classes.
“The main thing is that there are a lot of benefits to the sport,” Oliver said. “It’s a nice change of pace from dodge ball, and it’s a nice break for the kids.
“You don’t have to be a certain size or weight, and it’s not like football where you have to have some serious athletic ability to be successful. We have fitness guides that show teachers how to integrate relay races into stacking.”
Some schools have stacking clubs so the youngsters can enjoy the sport year-round. Many schools host tournaments, and the WSSA stages a national tournament every year.
But Oliver says stacking isn’t just for children.
At the U.S. Nationals, March 24-25 at the Air Force Academy, contestants aged 5-18 will compete against others their own age.
But there’s also a 4-and-under division, a collegiate division for those 19-24, and master’s divisions for those 25-34, 35-44 and 45-59, plus a senior division for stackers who are 60 and older.
“We’ve had stackers well into their 80s competing at world events,” Oliver said.