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.
Coach Yvonne Moody has dedicated her life to this sport. She runs workshops, organizes tournaments, trains other coaches. The first time she talked to me about it, she lobbied me to become a coach. The Hurricane Jumpers give performances and demonstrations all over South Florida, compete in the Junior Olympics, and travel to national tournaments. Moody is an ambassador to everyone, including a longtime coach from Puerto Rico who speaks only Spanish. Moody's gringa English is no problem, she says. "We both speak jump rope."
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."
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."
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.
"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.
"Ready, set, go!" he chants. He jumps onto his hands, kicks into the air, lands back on his feet.
Over the years, the Warriors have traveled to competitions and performed at the city's St. Patrick's Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day parades. But turnover among their coaches has slowed their progress, and they were not aware of the March 31 jump rope competition in Miami Gardens. Chantel Miller, who used to coach a team in Lauderdale Lakes, says she began coaching the Warriors in March. Now she's training the Warriors so that six kids can compete in a tournament organized by Moody at Nova Southeastern University on May 19. The City of Fort Lauderdale will cover the Warriors' tournament fees. Lensley is one of the children Miller has selected to compete.
He's been jumping for five years and has outlasted many of his coaches. One of those former teachers, along with Lensley's dad, taught him how to do backflips. Now his parents are divorced, and his dad lives in West Virginia. "I miss my dad," Lensley confesses, as he takes a break from jumping to munch on Goldfish crackers.
In his spare time, Lensley likes to play basketball, soccer, and volleyball, listen to jazz and hip-hop. He boasts that he can speak "Haitian, kinda Spanish, kinda Chinese — oh yeah, and French." Jump rope is one of his many talents. "We do impossible stuff that some people can't do," he says.
When he grows up, Lensley is not certain what career path he will choose. Maybe he'll be a college football player; maybe not. "Whatever job that gives the most money," he says. He wants to make sure he can buy things, he explains solemnly, because his mom told him today that he will not be receiving any more allowance.
Back at the USA Jump Rope Region 13 Qualifying Tournament, tensions escalate by the hour. Veteran jumpers are trying to score high enough to advance to the national tournament. Younger, newer jumpers, such as Taryn Marriott, are simply trying to rank regionally. The Hurricane Jumpers are in constant motion, bouncing around the gym, practicing cartwheels, memorizing dance steps. The girls have their shiny hair pleated in identical braids. Their shoelaces are covered in fluorescent pink or green tape, to prevent tripping. The gym echoes with the steady slap of vinyl hitting the floor. "No Fear. No Excuses. Jump Rope," commands a bumper sticker on the wall.
Four teams are competing today: the Hurricane Jumpers, the Supersonics, the Jumpin' Beinz, and the Bobcat Jumpers. Although the Twirling Tigers talked about competing, the team never arrived.
Around 11 a.m., Amanda Sepe finishes her speed-jumping round and walks off the floor choking back tears. Her score wasn't as high as she'd hoped. She got 310 jumps in three minutes, while the highest score of the day was 381. "It's just a qualifier. Don't cry," her mom says briskly.
Amanda sits on the bleachers and snuffles anyway. She's the second child I've seen cry at this tournament. The anxiety in the room is enormous. "You OK, Amanda?" Her friend Catherine Salow appears, hovering. "You OK?" Catherine's voice is kind but not coddling. Life isn't fair, her tone admonishes. Buck up. Within minutes, Amanda has rejoined her friends, sitting cross-legged on the gym floor, eating sandwiches and chips.
After her freestyle performance, Taryn is still distraught. She returns to the bleachers shaking. "I dropped my rope twice," she says. "We didn't even finish our routine."
Yet she's still hoping for a medal. As the competition winds down for the day, all the jumpers gather on the gym floor, their eyes worried, their faces pinched. A table covered with brightly colored ribbons tempts them from the front of the room. The coach who organized this event, Dillon Bethell, takes a microphone and begins announcing the winners.
When her name is called, Taryn bounces to her feet in wide-eyed, joyous surprise. She wins three ribbons in three categories of speed jumping. Her mom appears, beaming and snapping photos. Taryn and Olivia pose gleefully, kneeling on the floor, displaying their awards. Taryn smiles modestly at the camera. She looks proud and relieved. Today, she is a champion.