At after-school practice for the Miami Supersonics, one of the best jump rope teams in the U.S., a dozen kids circle 12-year-old Jake Amster in the aerobics studio of a South Miami gym. The freckled 4-foot-7-inch, 75-pound tween stands still, hunched forward and gripping two light blue handles attached by a stainless steel wire.
“Single rope,” declares a male voice over the PA. “One-minute speed.”
The boy inhales. His body tightens.
“Jumpers ready. Judges ready.”
There’s a shrill beep and Jake flicks the wire above his head and under his fluorescent orange Nikes as if he’s running in place. Within seconds, the metal rope whizzes around the boy so fast—50 miles per hour—that it seems to vanish except for the whirring noise as it slices through the air. One misstep and there could be painful welts.
After 30 seconds, lactic acid burns in Jake’s limbs. Sweat builds at his temples. His cheeks flush and his features twist in agony. He has 30 seconds to go.
“Come on, Jake!” his teammates yell. “You got this, Jake!”
Finally, the announcer calls time. Jake drops the rope, rests his hands on his knees and looks up at his coach, Dillon Bethell—arguably the most animated rope skipping instructor in the world.
Bethell checks the jump tally. His brows shoot up and he shakes his head in theatrical disbelief. An 8-year-old giggles at the performance. A 16-year-old smiles and rolls her eyes. Jake has made 300 jumps in 60 seconds (150 on each foot), a personal best.
Still puffing, Jake flashes a wide grin. Though he’s one of the top jumpers in the country for his age, it’s rare for coach Bethell to dish out such high praise, preferring to motivate his team with constructive criticism. But as the Supersonics prepare for a summer of high-profile national competitions, a little camaraderie is a good thing. After qualifying at a regional tournament in May, the team is advancing to this month’s 23rd Junior Olympic Games in Detroit.
At this level, rope skipping is more than a way to pass the time at recess. It is an intense and grueling sport practiced competitively in 30 countries. Jumpers can burn 800 calories an hour, performing feats that demand the endurance of a cross-country runner, the speed of a track star, the rhythm of a dancer and the agility of a gymnast. The International Rope Skipping Federation, a 21-year-old organization, estimates that more than 10,000 children jump rope competitively worldwide, often sacrificing their evenings, weekends and summer vacations to prepare for tournaments near and far.
A jump rope competition is typically broken into two categories: speed and freestyle events. Speed events focus on power and endurance, counting how many times a child can jump in a set time—individually using wire ropes, or as a team using Double Dutch ropes. During speed relays, teams take turns in short intervals, when the rope can reach speeds of 75 miles per hour. For the triple-unders, when the rope circles three times each jump, a move that famously pains the forearms, judges evaluate how many times competitors can do this before they mess up or give up from exhaustion. (The world record is 521.)
It’s not just how fast kids can jump; in the freestyle events, judges determine the creativity and skill of the choreographed routines. Somersaults and backflips rack up more points, as do crosses behind the back and under the knees, double- or triple-unders and turning backwards. Teams are constantly devising new ways of contorting their bodies so it’s more difficult to leap over a rope.
For the Junior Olympic Games, hundreds of the world’s most talented rope jumpers (under the age of 22) have traveled from as far away as Australia and Singapore. The competition is fierce, and coaches, parents and the young athletes hope their sport will one day be recognized at the actual Olympic Games.
“Jump rope should be in the Olympics because it’s a cool sport and just as much a sport as baseball or basketball,” says Jake. “If it were an Olympic sport, it’d make me want to keep jumping so I could one day compete.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball to know when that will be,” says Ron Kappert, executive director of the International Rope Skipping Federation, who has been lobbying for Olympic recognition for jump rope since 2001. “Day-to-day the sport is growing, but Olympic recognition is very strict: 40 countries must compete to qualify.”
That leaves them about 10 countries short. But as the sport gains momentum in Africa, a promising continent of 54 nations, athletes believe it’s only a matter of time before their effort earns the recognition they feel it deserves.
Jumping over a rope is so simple that it’s hard to pinpoint its exact origin. From China to Egypt, humans have been hopping over threads and sticks since civilization began. In the 1600s, Dutch settlers brought the first rope jumpers to America (Double Dutch, the popular format of two people turning dual ropes while facing each other, was named after these early pioneers).
By the 1940s and ’50s, New York’s inner city sidewalks were swarming with children in the aura of these rotating ropes (typically their mothers’ clotheslines, still dripping to create more momentum). In the ’70s, Double Dutch became part of the NYPD’s youth outreach programs, which kept kids from sliding into drugs and crime. Corporations like McDonald’s began sponsoring competitions. A decade later, New York City was home to 1,500 jumpers, and teams sprouted up all over the country.
From the Super Skippers in North Carolina to the Jumping Eagles in Colorado, there are more than a hundred teams in the country. A few times a year, these teams compete against each other, often vying for a spot at international competitions, like the World Jump Rope’s Championship and ISRF’s World Rope Skipping Championships, which hosted 1,200 jumpers from 30 countries last year in Sweden.
As jump rope has grown in popularity, it’s grown in complexity. “I don’t even recognize the sport,” Kappert says, adding that the top competitors from 1985 would be considered rookies today. “Double somersaults inside a rope—more and more they’re incorporating gymnastics and I’m really blown away at every international competition. It’s a very social sport that requires a lot of concentration, but it’s the kids’ imaginations that run it.”
Rope jumpers have upgraded from dripping clotheslines to colorful, beaded ropes, which add rhythm and are easier to turn. Coaches order barrels of galvanized steel cables online to configure speed ropes that are aerodynamic, while kids are creating new gravity-defying moves. At each competition, they one-up each other’s records. In Sweden last year, Chinese jumper Cen Xiaolin broke the record in the 30-second and three-minute speed events—jumping 222 and 1,110 times, respectively.
Though competition is intense, there’s a sense of fraternity among jumpers. After tournaments, it’s not uncommon for teams to host workshops and teach new tricks to kids who are technically their opposition. Many jumpers form long-lasting, long-distance friendships with members of rival teams.
“You can go to a country where you don’t know the language, but you can still teach and learn jump rope,” says 24-year-old Tori Boggs, who started jumping in West Virginia and now holds a handful of world titles. So far, she has traveled to 20 countries on six continents for workshops and competitions. “That’s the most beautiful aspect of the sport: You don’t need to communicate to talk jump rope.”
In 2000, coach Bethell, a Miami elementary school gym teacher, recruited 10 scraggly fourth and fifth graders for his inaugural team. He called them the Supersonics after J.J. Fad’s hit single.
Seventeen years later, the team has graduated more than a hundred jumpers, and has 22 current team members. The uptick can be loosely credited to Jump In!, a 2007 Disney television movie starring Corbin Bleu, which introduced the sport to a new generation. When kids reveal their talent in elementary school gym class or at the American Heart Association’s annual Jump Rope For Heart event, their phys ed teachers often refer them to Bethell.
“For some people it was track or horseback riding, but for me jump rope was the only thing I was ever really good at,” says Namiya Crespo, who has kept jumping with the team even after moving away to college. “I stuck with it. I don’t think I’m going to stop anytime soon.”
So far, the Supersonics have travelled to Hong Kong, Sweden and all over the U.S. for tournaments, and are considered one of the country’s best teams—since 2008, the team has won a national title every year. In 2015, they set the Junior Olympic speed record for Double Dutch and secured another first-place Double Dutch Pairs Speed title at USA Jump Rope’s Grand National Championship. At the ISRF world competition last year in Sweden, Crespo competed on the U.S. national female speed relay team, which became the second-fastest team in the world, behind only Hungary. When school starts in late August, the Supersonics hope to secure even more titles and records.
“Jump rope is what you make it. It’s almost like a video game,” says 19-year-old J.P. Godoy, who started when he was 8 and is now ranked 23rd in the world. “There’s always a harder trick or another level that you can achieve.”
Beyond tricks, or maybe because of the intensity required to learn them, jump rope builds a unique bond between teammates. Ten-year-old Miriam Amster (Jake’s little sister) and Bethell’s knobby-kneed nine-year-old son, DJ, have a synchronized routine together. When one of them misses a step, they bicker like a married couple, but when someone blasts Beyoncé at practice, they stick out their tongues and vogue in the studio mirrors. Sixteen-year-olds Gabriela Perez and Allison Bramblett have performed a synchronized routine together since they were 8. “It’s crazy! They even finish each other’s sentences,” says Allison’s mom, Jennifer Bramblett. “Gaby is like a daughter to me.”
Older team members often teach younger ones harder tricks. Like a big sister or brother, they relish the milestones together, as when someone finally lands their first double-under or masters their first “Awesome Annie” (when the rope criss-crosses between the knees in a mangle of limbs). “I really remember my first double-under,” Miriam says. “We were at our house and I was in the front yard, and I just jumped really high and did it. Once. I started screaming. Oh, my gosh, I was so happy!”
There are broken ropes, painful missteps and muscle cramps—which kids exploit to catch their breath or hit the water fountain.
Though Bethell can be tough—he’s known to restart a routine from the beginning if there’s any horseplay—his team adores him and his over-the-top facial expressions during practice.
“This group of jumpers has been together for the past six years. They’re an extremely tight-knit group,” Bethell says. “They’re like a family.”
After shattering records and picking up more medals than any other team at their regional tournament in Florida, Jake and 21 of his teammates are now preparing for the Junior Olympics. There, the Supersonics will face steeper competition: the Kangaroo Kids from Maryland and the Youth Sports from Virginia, two teams that typically sweep up the top awards each year.
The looming competition has brought a seriousness to the summer practices, especially since they’ve set their sights on a decades-old national Double Dutch record. If one team member misses, Bethell stops practice to have the entire team hold plank position for a minute. Jumpers push their limits during speed events, causing an asthmatic team member to reach for her inhaler. Inside the spinning Double Dutch ropes, jumpers enter a trance-like state, chanting “one-two, one-two” in perfect sync, performing their routines over and over again until they seep into muscle memory, where a song’s lyric triggers a Pavlovian response in the limbs.
“As a team, we have to fine-tune our routines so that we can do our best at competition. I need these kids to peak at the right time,” Bethell says. “It’s crunch time!”