Most sports are actually absurd. Golf involves hitting a tiny ball into a hole hundreds of yards away. Soccer is based on the idea of what if we didn't use our hands. Speed stacking — if you really understood it — is in equal parts as odd and as obvious.
That's according to Larry Goers, the CEO of the World Sport Stacking Association. He's quick to say that most sports start out sounding "kooky" but become more competitive as people take the idea and run with it. Sure, it's a competition that revolves around stacking cups. But why not?
Cup stacking dates back to the 1980s when Wayne Godinet, a director of a Boys and Girls Club in Oceanside, California, first started stacking Dixie cups at record speeds. Godinet’s hobby soon caught the eye of Bob Fox, a PE teacher in Colorado who saw one of Godinet’s tournaments and brought the sport back to his own state.
At the time, Goers had a daughter in Fox’s class. He tells Inverse that he saw the sport take off in the school, and has since poured his own expertise — Goers is an engineer — into refining the strange hobby into an elite sport.
Goers and Fox both founded SpeedStacks Inc, the company that manufactures all the equipment required for competition, and later, The World Sport Stacking Association. (Godinet has since told The New York Times: “I’m O.K. with that because this sport has transformed the lives of so many kids.”)
Under the formal structure of the World Sport Stacking Association, the sport has since achieved ESPN coverage and recognition by The Guinness Book of World Records. Though most still encounter the sport in gym class, it has an elite edge.
Today, Goers has multiple patents for sport-stacking cup paraphernalia, from weighted training cups to the “stack mats” required to time official competitions. SpeedStacks equipment is a requirement at national competitions. Selling the products, he says, is “just the reality of running a niche sport” but adds that they keep tournament costs low or non-existent.
“It's just like magic when your wish is really top stackers,” he tells Inverse. "It’s like juggling air.”
What makes speed stacking a sport – Competitive cup stacking is about speed. Athletes are tasked with building up and breaking down a series of predetermined pyramid formations. The first is a simple 3-6-3, three separate pyramids consisting of a 3-cup pyramid, a 6-cup pyramid, and another 3-cup pyramid.
That's just one of several patterns. But the headlining pattern is “the cycle” – the “premier stack” that includes that 3-6-3, a 3-3, and a 1-10-1 stack. The cycle includes 40 separate hand movements and each requires coordination and independent hand movement. As one hand builds, another elegantly destroys a stack.
“It's not that the movements themselves are challenging, it's that it's challenging to do it super fast,” Goers says.
The race is primarily against the clock, which only stops once both hands have been placed down on the stack mat. The speeds are truly blistering: The world record for completing “the cycle” is 4.735 seconds, set by Malaysian competitor Chan Keng Ian in 2019. Goers' best time for the cycle is around 15 seconds, he says. He’s a self-described slow stacker.
"It's not that the movements themselves are challenging, it's that it's challenging to do it super fast."
The athletic aspects of cup stacking come from the combination of speed and hand-eye coordination. And though this might seem simple, there are studies that speed stacking can — through practice — improve these core skills.
A 2004 study on 42 second graders found that five weeks of cup stacking improved scores on two reaction time tests by 3 and 4 seconds respectively.
It is clear that athletes have been drastically improving their own stacking speed, from Goers' point of view.
"I can remember 10 or 15 years ago, at each point, thinking: 'kids can never get faster than this,'" he says. "And every couple of years, someone just raises the bar."
The Michael Jordan of speed stacking – When Goers first invented the stack mat timing device, the timer was only accurate to the hundredth of a second. As the sport became more competitive, it became clear that the competition needed more specific timing. There were too many ties, so he had to readjust the clock to allow for a thousandth-of-a-second accuracy.
That’s why when asked to name a Michael Jordan of speed stacking, Goers says “every few years we have a new Michael Jordan.” Still, two people jump to mind.
In 2010, Steven Purugganan held four sport stacking world records. Between 2008 and 2009, he broke his own record for the cycle three separate times, with his fastest time clocking in at 5.93 seconds.
Then, there’s Emily Fox. Her world record for the cycle, set when she was 15 in 2002, stood for four years. It was also the first speed stacking world record ever set, which helped cement the speed stacking as something that was record-worthy.
Though times have dropped significantly since Fox completed the cycle in 7.43 seconds, her technique has left a mark on the sport.
“There's just something about the nimbleness I think when you get up to the very highest echelons,” Goers says.
The spirit of sport stacking – Despite the technical skill involved, most stackers aren’t among the ranks of the elite. Most encounter it for the first time in gym class.
The World Sport Stacking Association provides tutorials and lesson plans all geared towards making cup stacking the center of attention during PE class. And now, Goers says the programs are in over 50,000 schools and 50 countries.
Still, there are some who say that speed stacking doesn’t exactly qualify as a sport fit for school. Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education told The Wall Street Journal in 2009 that it's "certainly not moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.”
To those, Goers offers a simple retort: Cup stacking does include some of the most fundamental aspects of sport, pillars like competition, skill, sportsmanship. What it lacks is intense competitiveness to the point of poor sportsmanship — though things can still get a bit heated off the stack mat, he says.
“Make no mistake — the kids can be upset if they do poorly,” he says.
But unlike other sports, cup stacking's reputation remains a little quirky. That doesn’t make it any less intense.
“Our sport seems kooky to some people because you're stacking up plastic cups," he says. "But what I always recommend is come to one of our tournaments and watch what really happens there.”