The Longer Shot

So you want to make the Olympics. Our suggestion: pick an easy sport that no one in America is good at. Like race walking. Or, better yet, jump rope.
GQ, August 2000 (approx. 1,200 words)

On a rainy Saturday morning, Torrington High School’s Cornelius E. Donahue Gymnasium, in Torrington, Connecticut, is abuzz with the flying limbs and keening voices of nearly a hundred dedicated athletes. These are the elite of their sport, gathered for a competition that will determine whether they’ll go on to face still fiercer challengers or slink home to lick their wounds until next year’s contests begin. And though most are teenage girls weighing less than a hundred pounds, they wear faces you’d expect to see on a weight lifter straining for a record-breaking clean and jerk. What happens in Torrington, you see, is the northeast subregional qualifiers of the U.S. Amateur Jump Rope Federation, and it will make or break the competitive season for these athletes. The girls (and a smattering of boys) are jumping, tumbling, pouting and flirting their way through a final set of warm-ups, but some have been training for nearly a decade, and it’s clear their skills have been honed to as fine a pitch as is humanly possible at the age of, say, 14. Just look at the two girls over in the corner, working out with a set of heavy double-Dutch ropes, spinning bundles of cords thicker than their forearms, like a major league slugger might heft three bats before squaring off at the plate. At 9 a.m., the competition gets under way and the assembled start down the long road to jump rope’s world championships and, if the dreams being dreamed in the Cornelius E. Donahue Gymnasium come true, to a far-off shot at Olympic gold.

THE DAY KICKS off with speed trials, and one jumper, 14-year-old Ali Bronson, the pile of hair atop her head adding several inches to her perky five-foot-five frame as she moves through a routine, emerges as the clear leader, with 648 revolutions and not a single miss in the grueling three-minute endurance test. By day’s end, she and her teams will place in the top three of seven events for 12- to 14-year olds. Ali would arguably be a favorite for gold if jump rope became an Olympic sport anytime soon. In an age when even computer games—another Olympic aspirant—garner corporate endorsements for their competitors, Ali, until Nike comes knocking, is a throwback to a time when winning was its own reward. But, more important, if jump rope is ever accepted by the Olympic Committee, it will most likely be the easiest sport in which to make an Olympic team. Everyone who ever entertained the notion of being a luger (“All you have to do is lie down on a sled!”) should start training to beat Ali Bronson now.

Sadly, though, beating a 14-year-old at what is traditionally a school-yard pastime will not be as easy as it looks. Watching four pigtailed girls perform a perfect double-Dutch freestyle routine, for instance, is like witnessing the command performance of a balletic sports troupe such as the Harlem Globetrotters. The double Dutch of city streets, with its rhyming patter, its split-soled Keds and cutoff shorts, is merely a child’s diversion by comparison. This is the double Dutch whose competitors journey from Texas, Montreal and Seoul; the double Dutch of year-round practice drills, barking coaches and bitter elimination heats. Jump rope as practiced in Torrington is not a “sissy sport,” as its practitioners’ sniping classmates often charge. It is a kind of gymnasts’ floor exercise with flying ropes added for excitement, and it requires just as much strength, grace and endurance.

The double-Dutch freestyle event is where rope skippers really show their stuff. The seventy-five second routines seem to stretch on for minutes. To see a pair of bodies in the midst of two spinning ropes leapfrog each other, stand on their hands, enter and leave the vortex in a cartwheel or a crawl is impressive. But when a rope end is suddenly released to go whirling overhead, implausibly caught again as the leaping and twirling continue, the shapes and motions seems more fluid than possible from a group that moments before sat sprawling on knobby knees, picking slap fights and tugging at training bras.

Besides competing with the likes of Ali and her compatriots, a would-be jump-rope gold medalist has to contend with the International Olympic Committee. For a sport even to be considered for the Olympics, it must be practiced in an organized fashion in at least seventy-five countries on three continents. The Fédération Internationale de Saut à la Corde, or FISAC, jump rope’s world governing body, currently boasts about thirty national members, from Asia, Europe, North America, Africa and Australia. Of the thirty-one international athletics federations that qualify for Olympic consideration—from racquetball to polo to korfball (a rules-intensive Dutch coed basketball)—experts on the subject guess that bowling stands the best chance of being added to the games. And with forty-six sports already on the Olympic roster, “It’s not clear they an accommodate many more,” says Josh Hinson, a sports lawyer.

The good news for Ali and her teammates is that Hinson, whose father assisted in getting Tae Kwan Do into the Sydney games as a sanctioned competition, is now working with the U.S. Amateur Jump Rope Federation, pushing to make jump rope an Olympic sport. And he has enlisted former Olympic wrestler Buddy Lee to help. As a conditioning consultant to the U.S. Olympic Committee, Lee has used jump rope to train dozens of Olympic athletes and is currently organizing a professional rope jumpers’ association he hopes will fuel a wave of popularity in the sport.

“ARE ALL JUMPERS’ shoelaces knotted and tied?” asks a tournament official. And though the crowd may be thin (a few coaches, various family members), the tension in the auditorium is like that which accompanies Michelle Kwan onto the ice. The speed trials have ended, and we’re on to the freestyle competitions, where the Forbes Flyers, Ali’s team, are definitely the jumpers to beat. After winning two events, Ali takes another first, in girls’ single-rope freestyle (which is judged on things like “covering floor space” and “acrobatics”). She is mobbed by excited teammates, but the celebration is brief—the double-Dutch freestyle heats are beginning. As expected, the Flyers bring off their program flawlessly.

There is elation at Torrington High this day, but ahead lie grit, tears and pain. After Torrington, the Flyers seem a shoo-in for the national championships at Disney World in late June, but soon after subregionals, disaster strikes. “We were working on our double-Dutch pairs freestyle routine,” Ali told me later, “and I came down on someone’s foot and fractured my growth plate. It was devastating.” Though doctors told Ali she wouldn’t be jumping for months, she was given a reprieve on the eve of the regional finals in Marietta, Ohio. Her singles routine failed to earn her a ticket to Florida, but she did qualify in her team’s best event, double-Dutch pairs freestyle, and her relief was palpable. A gold-medal performance and a promising moment for the sport of jump rope. How better to judge whether a sport is Olympic material, after all, than by how sweet a tear it brings to the spectator’s eye?