One day when Michael Vanner was in fourth grade, he and a couple of classmates were stuck inside during recess because it was snowing. They found a set of stacking cups and started to see how fast they could stack the cups into mini-pyramids.
"This is really cool, I bet people are really good at this," Michael recalls thinking. "So I looked it up on YouTube and people were like amazing. I said, 'I want to do that.' "
A few years later, Michael is one of the amazing ones.
Now 15 years old and heading into his junior year at East Aurora, Michael is ranked eighth in the world in Sport Stacking, which, yes, is an organized sport in which hundreds of thousands of people participate worldwide. The sport has gained him friends across the world and has taken him to events throughout North America, including Des Moines, Iowa, where Friday and Saturday he will compete in the AAU Junior Olympic Games.
There are about 1,100 subscribers to Michael's YouTube channel, which features videos of him stacking cups so fast you need to see several replays to absorb what you are seeing.
Michael's hands are a blur. The cups clickety-clack as he stacks them up and down. And in seconds, it's over.
You need to see it again, as if it's some kind of magic trick.
And that's exactly what attracted him to the sport in the first place.
"I kept doing it for fun," Michael said. "I wasn't doing it to be competitive or anything. I was interested in the people who were really fast."
He kept practicing. His times dropped.
"I got a lot better," Michael said. "But then I'm like, 'Wait, I'm as good as people competing now ... should I do this?' So I went to a competition and won an event, and I was like, 'What the ... ?' "
That event was in 2014 in Kansas City. Michael's parents, Ralph and Laura, figured plenty of other families travel for sports. "And this is a very reasonable sport," Laura Vanner said.
Michael was also very interested in attending so he could meet fellow competitors whom he had connected with online.
"I wasn't trying to win," Michael said.
And then he did. Ralph called Laura back in East Aurora and said, "Oh my gosh, did you know he's really good at this?"
Another breakthrough for Michael came at the 2015 World Championships in Montreal. He had recently become one of the 70 athletes invited to Team USA, which earned him a trip to worlds.
Michael is now a "sponsored" stacker who receives free gear from equipment manufacturer Speed Stacks because he is one of the top 50 male competitors in the world.
'Pressure is pretty enormous'
Michael and his fellow competitors are stacking cups. But don't try drinking anything out of them.
The cups have holes in the bottom to allow air to go through and improve the speed of the stacking.
Times are recorded with a stack mat, in which a timer starts as soon as the competitor's hands leave two sensors, and stops when those sensors are touched upon completion of the stacking.
Sport Stacking consists of three main events: 3-3-3, 3-6-3 and cycle.
- In the 3-3-3, stackers assemble and disassemble three stacks of three cups, with good times around 1.5 seconds.
- The 3-6-3 features a larger, six-cup stack in the middle and goes about two seconds.
- The dizzying cycle starts with a 3-6-3, followed by two six-cup stacks, then a large 10-cup stack – all in about six seconds (below is one of Vanner's videos of him setting a personal best while practicing the cycle).
Times in those three events are combined to determine overall individual champions and World Sport Stacking Association rankings.
At his most recent tournament, in June in Brampton, Ont., Michael recorded personal bests in all three events. His overall score of 8.514 not only earned him the overall title but gave him his rankings of eighth in the world, seventh in the world among males, fourth in the United States and second in New York.
Michael has recorded faster speeds in all of those events in practice at home, but in terms of rankings, it's like a figure skater being able to hit a triple-axel in practice vs. doing it in the Olympics.
"The pressure is pretty enormous," Laura said of worlds, where Michael finished 26th overall in Orlando in April.
A look at Michael's YouTube channel shows him practicing in what looks like every room in the Vanner house. In one of the recent videos, he is celebrating a new personal best, and you can hear another voice in the background. It was his best friend, Tyler Hollins of Potsdam (ranked fifth in the world and first in New York), watching along on Skype. Stackers connect and compare times during these practice sessions online, much in the same way video gamers do.
Michael has friendships with stackers across the country as well as Israel, South Korea and New Zealand, while he's traveled to events in Orlando, Iowa, Michigan, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Virginia and West Virginia.
47,000 school programs
According to WSSA CEO Larry Goers, sport stacking is included in 47,000 school programs in 54 countries, about 20,000 of those added in the last three years.
"We couldn't be happier," Goers said of the growth of the sport.
Goers says the sport's success lies in skill development but also in accessibility.
"It's completely gender neutral, those with disabilities can do it, it's really inclusive. With many activities introduced in phys ed classes, they can be frustrating," Goers said. " ... With stacking, everyone finds some level of success."
For Michael, he (and mom) agree that the focus of sports stacking has helped in his growth in academics and other areas. He is also a diver for East Aurora's swim team, and he is interested in photography and making videos. Several of his YouTube videos are compilations of other top sports stacking moments; one on 2015 world records (below) has been viewed more than 91,000 times.
This is sport stacking's eighth year in the AAU Junior Olympics, something Goers values "because at the Junior Olympics we're competing alongside all of the other sports, and that's a big deal."
The practicing for speed stacking isn't unlike runners improving their times or basketball players practicing their free throws.
"The discipline – just knowing that you have to practice so much to achieve a goal, the same thing with studying or any other sport," said Laura. "You can't just go out there and perform, you have to have some practice behind it, and some dedication."
As Michael gets older he foresees not being as involved with competitive stacking, but soon he says he'll be trying to expose the sport to more people locally. He is contemplating starting a local club as well as hosting a tournament in Western New York.
"A lot of people keep doing it in college," Michael said. "I think I'm going to stay with it. I'm not going to compete as much, and I won't practice so much, obviously, because I won't have as much time … but I want to stay in the community, because that's important to me, it's a big part of my life."