Jump Rope's Big Leap

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John Fletcher / USA Jump Rope

Members of the Hot Dog USA Jump Rope team compete in the double dutch single event at the national championships at Disney World in 2006.

When a teenager named Izzy gives up boxing to join a jump rope team in Jump In!, a Disney Channel original movie debuting January 12, his classmates taunt him for taking up a playground pastime made popular by little girls. Marcus Taylor, who taught lead actor Corbin Bleu his rope-skipping skills for the film, says the same thing used to happen to him while he was growing up. "I got teased all the time when I was younger," says Taylor, 20, who went on to become a world champion rope jumper in 2004. Now when people poke fun at him, Taylor just takes out his rope and wows them with his gravity-defying jumps, flips and tricks. "I know that jump roping is so cool," he says, adding that most people realize the same thing after seeing what he can do.

That's a big part of why jump roping has become more popular than ever. While most kids do it just for fun — nearly five million participated in the American Heart Association's Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser in 2006 — others are making a habit of it, and have helped it to become an intense international sport with its own world cup held every other year. Nearly 40 teams participated in the world competition held last July in Toronto, with a Belgian team placing first, USA taking the silver, and Australia nabbing the bronze. At the national level, some 850 athletes competed at the USA Jump Rope championships in Orlando last June. While some entrants excel in speed — the current world record is 190 hops in 30 seconds — others are known for their freestyle routines, which incorporate gymnastics and choreography into individual ("single rope") or group ("double dutch") performances.

As the number of competitors has increased, so too has interest in watching their increasingly intricate steps and athletic stunts. "When you watch it, it's really something that is incredibly mind-boggling, and you can't quite picture how they do that," says Bleu, 17, who performed most of his own tricks for Jump In! Kelsy Moe, 22, became the female champion last year for moves such as the "double under frog" and "triple under," in which she performs handstands and jumps while twirling the rope around her body up to three times before her feet finally hit the ground. In addition to the Disney movie, which will air six times over the next five weeks, ESPN2 will broadcast the national championships on January 14 and February 13th, and the Discovery Channel is planning to air a documentary called Double Time, which focuses on two top double dutch teams, later this year.

Anyone who thinks rope skipping is child's play hasnt been to the 3-hour-a-day practices run by coach Ray Frederick, Jr., of the Bouncing Bulldogs in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In a typical session, team members climb 2000 to 3000 football stadium steps and do 500 one-footed jumping jacks. That hard work has paid off. "We've won the national championship three years in a row now, and that's never happened before," says Frederick, whose team currently consists of 95 boys and girls, ranging from ages 4 to 22.

Mary Hunter Benton, 15, says she gets up at 5 a.m. each day to make morning practice and often does not get home until 7 p.m. on weeknights. Weekends are spent traveling the country to do performances, such as the upcoming halftime show at the Army-Navy men's basketball game on January 21. "The crowd always loves the 'rodeo,' where you're bouncing on your butt. They always find that fascinating," notes team member Krishinda Lee, 22, who is a junior at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Although Benton says she would like to have time to run cross-country or join the cheerleading squad at her high school along with many of her friends, "you just have to keep your eye on the ball" — err, rope. And she has. Benton placed third for individual female competitors in last year's world competition. Not bad for a girl who took up jumping rope on a lark after watching a demonstration at a local shopping mall when she was just a little girl.