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"That was the attitude," Harrington says. "Until [the Flyers] pulled out their ropes and jumped."
This kind of bridge-building is part of Harrington's mission. She has attended former students' weddings and their funerals. She's seen how jump rope remains woven into their lives. They grow up to judge the sport and never want to stop jumping. They tell her she taught them how to cross racial barriers with ease. "They never saw color because of me," she says. "If I did that for them, I feel like..." Her voice trails off at the enormity of it.
She recalls the wedding of one former jumper, Melissa, who was on the Woodburn Wildcats team with me in Virginia. Just before the wedding reception, while the bride was in the restroom, the bridesmaids asked Harrington, "Do you have any ropes in the car?" Of course she did.
They started turning double dutch ropes on the floor of the reception hall. When the bride emerged from the restroom, she lifted up her wedding dress and jumped in.
In Broward County, jump rope teams are as segregated as their neighborhoods. Kids join teams run by their local recreation centers, which means they are divided along the same economic and racial lines that separate the Sistrunk and Sailboat Bend neighborhoods in Fort Lauderdale.
On a Saturday afternoon a month before the USA Jump Rope Region 13 Qualifying Tournament, the Miramar Youth Enrichment Center is hidden behind an overpass off Miramar Parkway near Florida's Turnpike. It's an expansive, impressive building, with a circular driveway and a weightlifting room behind the reception desk. Miramar is a primarily black and Hispanic city with a $65,000 median household income — $16,000 less than Miami Shores. The Twirling Tigers double dutch team practices in a small, brightly lit gym with wood plank floors and mirrors lining one wall.
Coach Janine Alleyne is turning the double dutch ropes, encouraging a girl in a purple Pokémon shirt to keep her rhythm. Half of Alleyne's head is shaved, and the other half is a cascade of long black curls. She grew up jumping on the streets of New York. "One, two, left, good! Breathe," she coaches.
The 10-year-old jumper, Renice Bleck, is hopping from one foot to the other but keeps catching the ropes with her foot. She lets a teammate take a turn jumping, then tries again. This time, she makes no mistakes.
"Good job, Renice!" says Alleyne.
The Twirling Tigers began in 2009, when the City of Miramar decided to form an athletic program for girls. Thanks to sponsorship from the Broward-based company 1-800-411-PAIN, it costs just $25 for Miramar residents to join the team, compared with the $1,100 to $2,100, depending on how many tournaments and trainings they attend, that it costs Hurricane Jumpers. The Twirling Tigers have participated in tournaments with other local jump rope teams and attended an international workshop in Miami with teams from Belgium and Puerto Rico. They're planning to attend the USA Jump Rope Region 13 Qualifying Tournament. In terms of skill and practice time, the Tigers are far behind the Hurricane Jumpers. But Alleyne won't tell them that.
When Renice says she can't hike her knees up high enough to jump properly, Alleyne insists she can. Renice says she can't do a cartwheel, but Coach disagrees. "You can," Alleyne says. "Stop saying you can't."
All this encouragement does not go unnoticed. Renice later explains that she plays basketball and soccer, but jump rope has helped her grow in a different way. "I feel more confident to be around new people, " she says. "I used to be really shy."
In Fort Lauderdale, the Warfield Park Warriors meet on Tuesday evenings in an aging building sandwiched between Hot Dog Heaven and a Walgreens, at the honking, exhaust-fumed intersection of Sunrise Boulevard and Andrews Avenue. Inside, the gym is ripe with sweat, equipped with linoleum floors and dingy basketball nets.
Many of the team members are Haitian-American. They live in the small, cramped houses nestled between the New Life United Methodist and Immanuel Baptist churches. The double dutch program is free for the kids enrolled in the city's after-school program. Many of them walk here after class at North Side Elementary.
On a cool Tuesday night, a tiny, lithe 9-year-old with dark eyes and dimples is concentrating hard on his speed jumping drill. Wearing orange-laced sneakers, Lensley bounces nimbly on the balls of his feet, eyes glued to the hands of the coach turning the double dutch rope ahead of him. In this exercise, his challenge is to maintain a steady pace, follow the rhythm of the ropes, keep his knees up, and hop from one foot to the other as quickly as possible.
A wave of nostalgia hits me. These speed drills are the same ones I remember from 20 years ago. The Hurricane Jumpers have upgraded to vinyl and bead ropes, but the Warfield Warriors use cloth double dutch ropes. They are jumping the way I did in Harrington's Woodburn Elementary school gym. Except Lensley is far better than I was.
"One, two, one, two, up, up!" his teammate chants.
Now Lensley's doing a forward flip — leaping onto his hands, flipping over, and jumping in time for the double dutch ropes to swing beneath him. He's the only boy at practice tonight, but no one seems to care. He steps out of the ropes for a few minutes before attempting another trick. Biting his fingernails, he takes a deep breath and lunges forward. Cartwheeling with his feet together — a gymnastic trick called a round-off — he lands on his feet, then does a backflip into the ropes.