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The music shifts to the country classic "Cotton Eyed Joe." Roughly two dozen kids — mostly girls, plus a smattering of boys, all from 5 to 13 years old — heel-toe their way through what looks like a line dance with jump ropes. They jump individually but in sync. When the song ends, the kids swarm around Moody and sit on the floor, stretching and squirming and trying to get her attention. Some of the team members wear plaid skirt uniforms from their private school. All of them pay to be here, jumping rope three times a week. For the most dedicated team members, it can cost more than $2,000 to participate in a year of practices, summer camps, and national competitions — a price comparable to a dance class with recitals. Most of the children live in Miami Shores — an inland neighborhood with wide lawns and elegantly coifed houses. Taryn commutes from Morningside, a historic, gated neighborhood on Biscayne Bay.
"Miss Moody, are we testing speed today, because I really don't feel like doing it," a tiny blond girl whines.
The child is wasting her breath. Moody has been teaching jump rope for more than two decades and devotes herself to it "with every ounce of my body." A mentor introduced her to the sport in college, and she coached as a gym teacher in Miami-Dade public schools for 15 years. In 2005, she quit teaching to care for her ailing parents. Now, much of her life revolves around jump rope. Coaching the 20 to 40 members of the nonprofit Hurricane Jumpers team helps her escape the daily stress of shuttling her parents to doctors' appointments and haggling with health insurance companies. "I play here," she says. "This is my playground."
So yes, they're practicing speed jumping today. Jumpers compete in two categories: a speed test of how fast they can jump in a given time frame, and freestyle routines — which can include cartwheels, pushups, handstands, backward jumps, double-jumps, and everything else a child could invent with a rope.
"The door's right there, lazy people. You can leave!" Moody shouts.
The kids divide into pairs, one child jumping a single rope as fast as she can, the other sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring at her partner's feet. Speed jumping is like running in place, except you never move forward. You hop lightly on the balls of your feet, from one foot to the other, keeping your feet close to the ground so as not to waste time with giant leaps. In tournaments, the judges count only the number of times the right foot hits the ground. The kids are currently running a three-minute drill. If this sounds easy, try it — you'll be winded in seconds.
Team leader Catherine Salow, a tall, slender 11-year-old who could pass for a young Gossip Girl, has been jumping for five and a half years. She can reach 399 jumps in three minutes, Moody says. But not today.
"That first round was ugly," Moody says when they finish. Her voice is cheerful but firm. "I need you all to focus. You have a tournament coming up. You need to make sure you're ready for it. Capiche?"
Next on the practice agenda are freestyle routines. The kids fan out across the room in pairs. Toward the center of the floor are two of the oldest children: Catherine and Amanda Sepe, a willowy, brown-haired 12-year-old.
Amanda's very shy, her mom later explains. She doesn't enjoy auditioning for school plays, and she's not traditionally athletic. But she will perform and compete in national jump rope tournaments. "On the whole, I don't see her as a big sporty person," Ellen Sepe says. "Which is funny, 'cause she's doing well at this."
Amanda and Catherine practice leaping up into handstands, then jumping back down, like a kicking donkey, in time to hop over their ropes. Meanwhile, Catherine keeps an eye on the younger kids.
"Emma, you should be jumping, not doing handstands against the wall," she admonishes one girl. Emma promptly walks over and gives Catherine a hug.
"I like how we're all a team together," Catherine says. "We do everything together."
"Yeah, 'cause we're family," adds another girl, grinning broadly and hugging Catherine.
No jumper forgets she is in this to win. Kids, parents, and coaches talk a lot about beating their "personal best," as opposed to beating their teammates. For a perfectionist, competing with yourself can be far more nerve-racking than trying to outdo any flesh-and-blood opponent.
Catherine can't hide the disappointment in her voice when she explains that she tried out for the national USA Team a few months ago and didn't get in. She'd been practicing five days a week with the Hurricane Jumpers, plus extra time at home to prepare. "I didn't really make it, but that's OK," she says, as if reciting the line by rote.
Yet some of her younger teammates, like Taryn, are just happy to win a medal — any medal. For them, as it was for me, athletic accomplishment is a new and wondrous thing. As 8-year-old Chloe Cartledge explains, "You might think tenth place is worst, but it's better than no place at all."