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By CASEY OLSON
They gather in a deserted gymnasium at Lake Grove Elementary. They stretch as a team, warm up and run through an hour and a half of structured practice.
These eight school-aged kids arent preparing for a basketball tournament, but they do have their eyes on a championship. The Leaping Leopards, an award-winning jump rope team, is heading to Walt Disney World in Orlando Wednesday for the 2004 National Jump Rope Championships. The event runs Friday through Sunday in the central Florida city.
Its a different kind of sport and I just like it, said Brian Hsu, an eighth-grader at Sacajawea Middle School.
The Leaping Leopards jump rope team was started back in 1997 by Lake Grove physical education teacher Dana Henry after a lot of pleading from several of her students. The kids interest was peaked the year before when a team of jump ropers performed at an school assembly. Since its inception, the entire Leaping Leopards jump rope club includes about 40 kids from throughout the Federal Way School District.
They just thought it was so cool, said Henry, who actually doesnt jump rope because of bad knees. They were just begging me for a jump rope team. Some of the quietest students here wanted me to do a team so bad.
The rest is history, as is the perception of jump roping.
No longer is the heart-healthy sport just for giggling school girls in plaid skirts spelling out words while slowly twirling their plastic-covered rope. The jump roping performed by the Leaping Leopards looks more like something out of the X-Games than recess. Jump rope today contains elements of gymnastics, break dancing and jazzercise.
It has joined other simple childhood pursuits that have been elevated to alternative-sports status. Take, for example, roller skating, which preceded in-line skating, or sidewalk surfing, which preceded half-pipe skateboarding.
Its a unique sport, Federal Way High School sophomore Christina Bell-Robinson said. Its cool because I get to show off, I guess.
Joining Hsu and Bell-Robinson in Orlando will be Enterprise second-grader Lily Trang, Federal Way High School graduating senior Hazel Bell-Robinson, Todd Beamer sophomore Elaine Trang, Nautilus fourth-grader Jake Anderson, Point Defiance Elementary fourth-grader Ryan Fitzgerald and Lakota Middle School eighth-grader Kirstin Larson The eight Leaping Leopards at the national championships qualified by placing in the top-four in individual events at regionals last month.
We just have a great group of kids going this year, said Henry, who has taken jumpers to nationals the last three years. The best group weve ever had. I think this year Im going to stick my neck out and say we may have somebody place in the top-three in the nation.
A top-three finish would be huge because that would mean an appearance on national television. ESPN broadcasts the championship round, which will take place June 27.
We are really proud of these kids, said Cindy Hsu, Brians mother. Its just jaw-dropping what these kids can do. Its like gymnastics with a jump rope.
There are several events within a jump rope competition including speed, freestyle and Double Dutch categories. In the speed events, single competitors try to complete as many jumps in a set amount of time. During last years national championships, the winning 14-year-old boy completed 320 revolutions in 60 seconds.
The freestyle portion is similar to a gymnastics floor exercise routine with a jump rope. Nine judges watch the routine and score