Perched on the gym bleachers, Taryn Marriott bounces her knees up and down in a nervous trot, her eyes wide with fear. "I just want to get a medal," she says.
The 8-year-old is bean-sprout thin and beautiful, her face pale and earnest, her long brown hair braided into two perfect French plaits. She walks onto the gym floor at the Betty C. Ferguson Recreation Complex in Miami Gardens wearing black shorts and a matching T-shirt with the slogan "Got ropes?"
The room is hushed. A panel of judges sits at long cafeteria tables in front of Taryn. Dozens of other competitors line the metal bleachers in the back of the gym, watching. Taryn's mother has coached her on how to get high marks by smiling. "You don't want to show your inner feelings," Taryn explains. "You want to be happy."
A recorded announcer's voice booms through the gym. "Judges ready. Jumpers ready. Set. Go!" Dutifully, Taryn pastes a smile on her face.
It's Saturday morning, March 31, and this is the USA Jump Rope Region 13 Qualifying Tournament. It's Taryn's first jump-rope competition. She's worried her simple tricks won't be enough to fill a minutelong routine that can feel like an hour. She's worried about making a mistake.
She swishes her jump rope to the right, crosses her arms over her chest, jumps, then swishes to the left. This is a doubles routine, so her partner, Olivia Auster, is mimicking every move.
The girls jump in sync, two slow bounces. They cross their arms again, leap into the air, and whip the ropes under their feet extra fast, a trick called a double jump. Heel, toe, heel, toe, their feet dance. As Taryn attempts another double jump, the rope catches under one foot. She ignores the error, frees the rope, keeps jumping.
Now Olivia swoops her rope in a long circle around Taryn, so the two can jump one rope together. They separate, move flawlessly through a few more steps of choreography before Taryn hits another snag. She's drawing an x in the air, crossing her arms for a backward jump, when the rope catches.
One rope handle slips to the ground. The smile slides off Taryn's face. Two mistakes will cost her with the judges. They could cost her a medal. The room is so quiet, the anxiety in her mind so loud. She bends down to retrieve the rope and keeps jumping.
Until six months ago, Taryn was like many other bright kids. She devours books, recently putting 33 titles on hold at the public library. She once wrote a short story about snails, snakes, and pigeons. She plays teacher with her younger sisters and trots around the house singing songs about goblins and other "things that scare me in October." Now she's a competitive rope jumper. Her Miami Shores team, Hurricane Jumpers, is part of a small but fiercely ambitious world of South Florida jumpers. The team has competed in the Amateur Athletic Union's Junior Olympics, and its coach is lobbying to make jump rope an Olympic sport. This August, teams from 23 counties will compete in the World Rope Skipping Championships in Tampa.
This is not hopscotch with ropes. In the past four decades, jump rope has evolved from a game played by black children on the sidewalks of New York City to a complex sport adored and promoted by suburban kids of all stripes. It especially appeals to nerdy, creative kids — like me 20 years ago. These kids may never be soccer goalies or ballerinas, but with a vinyl rope and the strength of their own nimble limbs, they have a shot at glory.
"You're doing great!" someone from the audience shouts.
Taryn forces a grin. She lifts her right leg like a frog, tucks one hand behind her knee, and jumps perfectly. She transitions, along with Olivia, into cancans — hiking one knee up and down in rhythm, then kicking forward, Rockette-style.
"One minute," the announcer's voice booms.
With a flourish, Taryn and Olivia stand like sentries, legs and arms apart, their ropes crossed in front of their legs. As they hold the final pose, Taryn smiles and grits her teeth.
Nine days earlier, the synthesized beats of Martin Solveig's "Hello" mix with the clatter of beaded ropes on a polished wood floor. "I just came to say hello." In a few hours, women with yoga mats and spandex will stretch into downward-facing dogs in this room at the Miami Shores Community Center. For now, it's Hurricane Jumpers territory.
A woman in Asics sneakers and rimless glasses sits on a platform at the side of the gym. Her brown hair is pulled back in a girlish ponytail, and her polo shirt bears the USA Jump Rope logo. She smiles at the rows of bouncing children, including Taryn, jumping in single file so their ropes slap the floor in near unison. "Aw, that sounds nice," she shouts over the din.