In the late '80s, I was an awkward, knobby-kneed kid with pink plastic glasses and a gap between my front teeth. Anyone on the playground could attest to my lack of athletic skill: no eye-hand coordination, no pitching arm, no high kicks. The fact that I didn't trip over my own feet was a miracle directly attributable to Janice Harrington.

Harrington taught physical education at my elementary school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She took a cast of squirming, spoiled children and taught us, from the age of 5, how to be champions. She took her cue from a former New York City community affairs police officer. In the early '70s, Detective David Walker sought to revitalize the game kids played in the street by turning it into a competitive sport. In 1974, he and his partner, Detective Ulysses Williams, organized the first double dutch tournament in the city. Six hundred schoolchildren participated, according to the group Walker later founded, the National Double Dutch League.

For those who have never seen the jump rope intro in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing: Double dutch involves two people, standing a few yards apart, turning two ropes in overlapping circles — as if stirring cake batter in the air with one hand, then the other. A third person jumps into the egg-shaped bubble formed by the ropes. In the league's photos from those early days of competitive double dutch, all the jumpers are black. They performed at Lincoln Center and the Chicago Art Institute and went on a "McDonald's Tour."

"You don't want to show your inner feelings. You want to be happy,"  says Taryn Marriott.
Christina Mendenhall
"You don't want to show your inner feelings. You want to be happy," says Taryn Marriott.
Double dutch has evolved from a game played on the streets of New York to a highly competitive sport.
Christina Mendenhall
Double dutch has evolved from a game played on the streets of New York to a highly competitive sport.

The sport expanded over the next four decades to include different styles of jump rope and a rainbow coalition of competitors. Jumpers from North Carolina to Tokyo compete in national and international championships. A Japanese team won the National Double Dutch League's 20th-Annual Holiday Classic last year at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

When I joined the sport in the late '80s, it was still a relatively new trend, imported from inner cities to my suburban, and predominantly white, school. Harrington, who is black, never gave any hint this was unusual.

I call Harrington, 20 years after I last saw her, after procrastinating for more than a week. I have such hero-worshiping memories of her — strong, confident, and beautiful, quick with the one-liners, and unwavering in her encouragement.

"Hello?" My heart hammers when she picks up the phone. I'm 12 years old again, sweaty-palmed and floundering. Feigning confidence, I switch quickly into reporter mode. "I'm doing a story about jump rope, and wondered if I could ask you..."

Harrington is accustomed to these phone calls. She explains that former students have written college essays about her and made movies about jump rope. Within minutes, we're laughing and chatting like it's 1992.

For all the years I knew her, Harrington had a license plate proclaiming she was 29. Now 62, she has white hair and the same mischievous smile I remember from decades ago. She grew up jumping rope for fun. She didn't know it could be a competitive sport until she attended a workshop in Virginia. She began teaching kindergartners jump rope games. In third grade, children could audition for the jump rope team, which involved jumping individually — like the Hurricane Jumpers — with single ropes. We performed complicated routines, set to music, at other local elementary schools. Some of us also joined the double dutch team, which competed in national and international contests, including the World Invitational Double Dutch Tournament. To this day, that tournament is the only sporting event I've ever participated in that was broadcast on ESPN.

Everyone wanted to be on the jump rope team. The Woodburn Wildcats got to take field trips to other states, miss class, perform at assemblies. In other words, they were popular. Our uniforms consisted of T-shirts, short shorts, knee-high athletic socks, and, in my case, L.A. Gear sneakers with pink and purple laces. "Do you still make them wear those socks?" I ask Harrington.

She laughs. "No, those are long gone."

Harrington taught in Northern Virginia for 21 years. In the mid-'90s, she married and moved to Connecticut. Her goal was to teach in an inner-city school. She applied for a job in Hartford but didn't get it. The only spot available to her was in a suburban school. When she accepted, Harrington wondered if that was the right choice. "Even though segregation's supposed to be over, it's not," she says. "My question to myself was, why am I here?... I said to myself, there must be a reason."

Over the next 18 years, she began to understand. Her Connecticut team, the Forbes Flyers, went on to receive national acclaim — appearing on Good Morning America and in the Macy's Day Parade, getting written up in the New York Times, traveling to a world competition in South Africa. Harrington has served as president of the USA Jump Rope governing board and was recently named head coach of Team USA, the national team that will compete in the World Rope Skipping Championships in Tampa this summer.

Through it all, Harrington took pains to expose her students to kids from different backgrounds. At one point, she took them to a predominantly black community in Hartford. When the Forbes Flyers walked in, Harrington could feel the distrust from the Hartford kids, the silent accusation: You're coming into my sport.

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Wow! Got an education on an awesome sport! And proud of Taryn and Tiffany !!!