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

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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.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab