At 17, Andy Retting has competed in seven world championships and set multiple records in local and state tournaments. The soon-to-be Classical Academy grad has traveled around the country to talk about his sport, and his success.
And as will happen when you're in high school, he's grown quite a reputation.
"People are like, 'You stack cups? That's the stupidest thing ever,'" Retting says, amused. "One of the hardest things about stacking cups is being willing to take stuff like that from people."
Sport stacking, or speed stacking, seems a bit Napoleon Dynamite at first. Stackers use a dozen 10-ounce plastic cups to build a series of pyramid patterns while "racing" against the clock. It sounds like an easy, even pointless sport — rock-paper-scissors tournaments, anyone? — but competitors claim to practice for several hours a day to achieve blur-like speeds and a feather-light touch.
Regulation stacking cups have three holes punched in the top to improve aerodynamics, a smooth inner lining to cut down on friction, and a special "shoulder" to provide the perfect amount of separation between them. (For a complete "anatomy of a cup," see speedstacks.com.)
TV shows like Ellen and Live with Regis and Kelly have showcased stackers, and YouTube stacking videos generate hundreds of thousands of hits. Some videos are like watching a movie in fast-forward — it almost defies logic that the brain and hands can move so fast.
Perceived geek factor aside, studies show cup stacking increases brain activity, facilitating better hand-eye coordination and bilateral brain coordination. Teachers and parents claim it improves academic performance by boosting confidence and developing focus.
Mindy Abbott, a substitute teacher for District 49, first started stacking four years ago with a kindergarten class. Abbott says she definitely saw student improvement.
"A lot of the benefits show up in reading because of the bilateral use that's encouraged in the brain and the crossing of the midline of your body and brain," Abbott says. "Stacking uses both sides of the brain, and when you read you use both sides, so stacking really helps develop that."
Abbott recently started hosting training workshops for potential stackers, and she thinks the sport has gone international because it's easy and cheap to "play" — a complete set of cups with a mat and timer runs about $30. Plus, she says, it's a competitive challenge for kids who aren't athletically inclined.
"Stacking gives them a sport they can excel at," Abbott says.
Sport stacking has been around since the '80s, but Denver's Bob Fox is widely recognized as having driven its recent growth. Back in '95, when Fox was a physical education teacher, he incorporated sport stacking into his curriculum with immediate success. He began presenting the sport at schools and eventually started Speed Stacks Inc., a company that today solely manufactures and sells sport stacking equipment, generating $4 million annually. According to a company spokesperson, more than 30,000 sport stacking programs exist around the world.
Colorado Springs School District 11 has incorporated cup stacking into its phys ed curriculum for grades 3 through 5, and in March the district hosted a tournament. Several schools in districts 20 and 49 offer stacking as an extracurricular activity and sponsor teams, some of which traveled to the World Sport Stacking Championships in Denver this past April.
The seventh annual WSSC hosted more than 700 players from a dozen countries. There's no age limit in stacking, but younger competitors seem to dominate; Team USA's 11-year-old Steven Purugganan walked away with three world records at this year's championships, and was featured in the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. He also landed an advertising endorsement with McDonald's.
So ... who's laughing now?