The first thing I noticed when I entered the St. Michael Center in Baltic, Connecticut, several Saturdays ago was the sound. It was sport stacking time, and the gym was filled with the click-clack-pop of plastic cups in motion. Hundreds and hundreds of them. I had walked into the middle of the 2011 Connecticut Sport Stacking Championships.
What, you may ask, is sport stacking? That's precisely the question I put to Glen Costello, the gym teacher and director in charge of the competition.
"It's basically the upstacking and downstacking of cups," he said, looking at me as if perhaps he thought I was a little slow. "There's 12 cups in a set, and there are pyramids, certain pyramids, and certain sequences, and stackers are stacking the cups for time."
How Does it Work?
Glen Costello not only brought sport stacking to the Phys. Ed. classes he teaches in Baltic, he's also a competitor of sorts. But he's not an especially fast stacker of cups, so before it was time to watch high level competition, I thought I'd better find a contender to show me how the game works. I approached Kailey Diedrick, a high school senior who drove several hours from New York to stack cups against the best. With a little prodding, she acknowledged that she's no slouch herself.
"Okay, well, I'm not exactly sure, but I'm pretty sure I'm third officially for adult females in the world," she said.
"Because I'm 18 now, and I know that I'm one of the best adult female stackers."
Because sport stacking at the highest level happens almost too quickly for the eye to follow, I asked Kailey to upstack and downstack her cups slowly, explaining, as she proceeded, what she was doing. Though I'm sure she found the request a little bizarre, she did her best to run through the sequence of upstacks and downstacks known as "the cycle," in which the competitor begins with a stack of six cups between two stacks of three cups and transforms the stacks to create, among other configurations, a stack of ten cups between two single cups, eventually returning to the original three stacks…all in roughly the time it takes me to look at my watch.
If a cup slips away during that process, it's called a fumble, although one of the other stackers with whom I spoke called it "a mess-up," which I liked for the informality. Anyway, fumbles must be recovered and re-stacked, or the stacker has committed a scratch, which means the performance doesn't count.
Joining in the Fun
In case you've been inspired by the notion of cup stacking and are about to begin searching your cabinets for stackable cups, be advised that normal cups won't work very well. I learned that from an entrepreneur named Lorraine, who was sitting behind a table of sport stacking paraphernalia.
"Well," she told me, "you need special cups with holes in the tops. You can't just use plastic cups from the grocery store."
I was catching on. "Right," I said, "because the air would push the cups…"
"Yes!" Lorraine said. "That's exactly it."
"So special cups," I said. "How much does an elite set of stacking cups cost?"
"The most expensive set we have is $23," Lorraine said. And, perhaps sensing a sale, she added, "that comes with a timer."
The serious competitors are serious about their cups. They carry them around in protective cases, which they wear over their shoulders, like quivers. Many of these competitors first encounter each other by exchanging videos of themselves stacking. When they meet in person, the encounters can generate celebrity magic.
Sport Stacking Celebrities
Rose Ford, whose son, Peter, was stacking as we spoke, spoke proudly of the status Peter had achieved.
"My son is an autograph signer now," she said.
Peter is the fastest stacker in Rhode Island. At last year's Connecticut Championship, he out-upstacked and downstacked all comers from six states. No wonder he draws autograph hounds.
"It's the cutest thing," his mother said. "It makes us proud."
I'm familiar with little league dads and soccer moms. Before attending these championships, I'd not encountered stacker parents…and the Fords weren't the only ones. Laurie and Steve Frechette's son Tim has been stacking cups for three years. Steve mentioned a benefit I'd not have imagined.
Tim was chubby before he started stacking," Steve Frechette said. "Now he's worked himself into shape."
"He lost 16 pounds," Laurie Frechette added. "So stacking could be the next exercise rage."
All the Rage
According to the experts ranging in age from eight to 18 with whom I spoke, cup stacking has already achieved "rage" status in Colorado, where the competition began, and in Pennsylvania, California, Maryland, and Texas, where the most recent World Championships were held last April. It's also big enough in Brooklyn to have captured the attention of Nathan Robles, who had to stand on two stair-steppers just to reach the cups on the table before him. With the help of his mother, Antoinette Robles, I asked Nathan how old he was:
"How old are you, my love?" asked Antoinette.
"Three!" shouted Nathan.
That he is already an accomplished cup stacker is particularly surprising, since according to Antoinette, when Nathan began, he didn't have the official cups:
"No," she told me. "He started with paper cups, actually, before he turned two years old. He was watching the You Tube video of the stackers, and that's how I ended up buying him the real cups, and from then on he's been playing the cups every single day he has the chance."
In fact, Nathan sometimes keeps stacking when he isn't supposed to have the chance, such as when he's eating breakfast.
He stacks his Cheerios.
"I don't know how his brain is wired," Antoinette said.
For the record, Nathan's brain is wired well enough for him to have brought a first place medal home to Brooklyn. Nobody else under five came close to his times.
World Record Attempts
Given the three-year-old stacking phenom and the 14-year-old autograph signer, you might be inclined to conclude that there's nothing solemn about this pursuit. If so, you'd be wrong. The entire day's clackety-pop-click of cup stacks rapidly growing and shrinking was a merely a prelude to the Stack of Champions, during which the entire room went silent as – one at a time - the best stackers attempted to break various world records. Among them was Michael McCoy of Pearl River, New York. His third attempt at the cycle did, in fact, result in a new world record, which Glen Costello, who'd assumed the duties of public address announcer, celebrated with gusto.
"Unbelievable!" he shouted. "Unbelievable! Ladies and gentlemen, you saw it here!"
As the crown applauded wildly, I worked my way through a throng of reporters and broadcasters to secure the coveted interview with Michael McCoy.
"I thought I had a chance," he told me. "But I didn't think that I would actually get it."
"So what's next?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said with a lopsided smile.
"You're supposed to say, 'I'm going to Disneyworld!'"
Mike McCoy shrugged. "Yeah," he said. "Okay. I'm going to Disneyworld."
Obliging young man, that Mike McCoy, especially for a world record holder.
This segment aired on December 24, 2011.