Jumping In

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Anyone Can Jump Rope, Right? Wrong, Says James Mccleary, Who Has A Quarter-century Of Coaching Experience To Back Him Up

August 16, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

It could well have been Howard County's Kangaroo Kids auditioning for television's "America's Got Talent" several weeks ago instead of a rival team from the Midwest.

The Colorado-based precision rope jumpers waited 10 hours to perform on the popular summer program, but errors soon set off the dreaded triple buzzers from the judges. In less than a minute, they found themselves trooping back off the stage beneath three illuminated red X's, said local coach James McCleary.

He commiserated with the other team's bad fortune as if his own team had been axed.

"I know they'd nailed it before because I'd seen their routine," said McCleary, who is also national jump rope chairman of the Amateur Athletic Union and board member of the USA Jump Rope Federation.

"But that's how it is with jump rope - you make a few mistakes and it's all over."

McCleary certainly knows from experience. He has coached the 150-member Kangaroo Kids for more than a quarter-century and is one of seven county residents recently chosen for induction into the Howard County Community Sports Hall of Fame.

Also to be inducted Oct. 20 are Stan Ber, Karen Brelsford, John Dye, Phil Lang, Patricia Muth and Ray Page. A 12-member committee organized by the county Department of Recreation and Parks made the selections.

"People sometimes ask me what kinds of events there could possibly be at our competitions," said McCleary, a physical-education teacher who travels among the county's public schools assisting special-needs students. After all, anyone can jump rope, right?

"I tell them it's mind-boggling what these kids do," he said. "I'm their coach, and even I can't believe it."

He described a trick called "The Subway," which involves one youth doing push-ups while moving forward low to the floor under another teammate who is also doing push-ups as a third flips over both of them - all the while timing their movements to the rhythmic slapping of two jump ropes turning like an eggbeater.

Hip-hop, break dancing and gymnastics have all influenced the sport, which was brought to New York by the Dutch when the city was called New Amsterdam, and is the origin of the term for turning two ropes together known as "double dutch."

"There is no limit to their imaginations," said the 36-year veteran teacher about the kids' innovative choreography.

Having no boundaries is exactly what has kept Scott Simpson involved with the Kangaroo Kids for 12 years.

Now 18 and soon heading off to Yale University to study engineering, Simpson said the amazing thing about jumping is that it's constantly changing.

"What's so incredible is that we can influence the direction of the sport," said the Hammond High School graduate. "Unlike more established sports with concrete rules, we make up our tricks. Jump roping doesn't look anything like it did 10 years ago."

One constant is the category of events that measure speed and power, with competitors' ropes twirling so fast they almost can't be seen.

McCleary has coached for so long that he amazingly can observe two individual jumpers simultaneously and tally the times one foot on each athlete rapidly goes up and down using palm clickers in both hands. Those figures are then multiplied by two for the official score, he said.

While the Kangaroo Kids are well-traveled competitors - having been to World Rope Skipping Championships in South Africa, Australia and Canada, among other countries - 90 percent of the team's mission is to promote fitness by performing and giving demonstrations locally at schools, churches, malls and other venues, said McCleary.

"Our goal is to promote physical fitness through use of a jump rope," he said, stressing that competing is optional for team members.

But when they do compete, they get results.

The travel team brought home a second-place overall trophy in June from the USA Jump Rope National Championships held over three days in Galveston, Texas. The team also had seven Grand National award winners.

McCleary's love for jumping clearly has had a trickle-down effect in his family. Daughter Tyffani, 30, and son, Jim, 27, each put in 25 years with the team. His wife, Danita, has always been a huge supporter. Even his son's 5-month-old daughter, Taelynn Rose McCleary, has a team T-shirt.

"Once you've caught the bug, you're hooked," the coach and father said.

Kangaroo Kids' founder Don Disney, who was the county's coordinator for athletics for 20 years before moving from Columbia to Texas four years ago, said that was true even in the early years.

"I started it as aerobic dance with a jump rope way back in 1978," said Disney in a phone interview. He was then a teacher at Atholton Elementary School. "Everything was synchronized and pretty awesome. It was a contagious type of thing."

When he moved into school administration, he said he couldn't let the budding organization die.

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