Competitive Jump Rope: Born in the Inner City and Bred in the Suburbs

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"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.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab