For a weekend, Raleigh becomes the country’s epicenter of competitive jump roping

When his routine ended, Zac Tomlinson walked off the stage Sunday at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium and made his way to a wall, out of the audience’s view. He tried to catch his breath. Moments later he lay down, stretched his body across the floor and put his hands over his head. He appeared exhausted.

For a little more than a minute on stage, Tomlinson had executed flips and handstands, tumbles and twists. And the Pittsboro 18-year-old did it all while regularly jumping over a rope during his freestyle routine at the American Jump Rope Federation’s inaugural national championship. He’d practiced that routine for more than a year, adding more difficult tricks and moves over time.

To the uninitiated, jump rope is most associated with an elementary school field day, or perhaps with a workout montage from a Rocky movie. To the more than 200 competitors who arrived in Raleigh for the AMJRF national championship, though, jump rope is much more.

“Jump rope,” said Tori Boggs, a prominent figure in her sport’s community, “is life.”

Indeed, the sport consumes the lives of Boggs, Tomlinson and many others who competed during the national championship. Events began Friday and ended Sunday with what organizers labeled the Grand National Championship.

‘Hopefully, it grows’

Boggs, 26, has been a competitive jump roper for nearly 20 years. She helped start club teams at Ohio State, where she graduated from in 2017, as well as UNC-Chapel Hill and Stanford. Those three schools, she said, are “collegiate powerhouses” in jump rope. Boggs is now something of an ambassador for the sport, and also a professional circus performer.

Tomlinson, picked up a rope as a small child when his family lived in Germany. He worked up such a sweat that he turned down the thermostat – an action his parents disliked, given that it was cold enough for snow outside. They signed him up for a jump roping class, and so began his passion.

The youth sports complex, with its year-round practice and competition, is well-documented in athletic endeavors like basketball or soccer. It is not much different for those highly-competitive in jump rope. Tomlinson, for example, was home-schooled in part so that he could train. He graduated high school a year early so that he could teach the sport and travel to competitions.

After competing in Raleigh, Tomlinson said he’d take Monday off. Then, he will travel to Florida to begin preparing for an upcoming world competition in Norway. In August, he will travel to Malaysia to perform with a circus. All the while, he is teaching jump roping classes in Pittsboro, and working toward some professional sponsorships.

“Right now it’s all pretty small,” Tomlinson said of his career. “But hopefully it grows.”

International recognition for the sport

Like Boggs, Tomlinson holds the same hope for the sport of jump roping, which requires many of the same skills one would need to become a successful gymnast or endurance athlete.

Simply hosting a national championship is one tangible sign of the sport’s growth. So, too, was the moment that the International Jump Rope Union – the worldwide governing body of the sport, in the same way that FIFA oversees soccer – became recognized by the Global Association of International Sports Federations.

That was a proud moment for jump ropers like Boggs, who hopes the sport one day becomes an Olympic event.

“I wouldn’t say that’s the only goal,” she said, “because as long as we’re getting jump ropes in kids’ hands, that’s what we want to do.” Still, she called the pursuit of Olympic jump roping a “huge goal.”

“And I’m a bit old now to make that happen,” Boggs said, “which is always a little bit sad, but now we look at all these younger kids and we’re like, they have that dream, too. Now it’s our job to make that happen so that they can be there.”

‘A $10 jump rope took me all over the world’

With their performances in Raleigh, both Boggs and Tomlinson earned spots on Team USA, which will compete in 2020, at a location yet to be determined, in a worldwide competition sanctioned by the International Jump Rope Union. Boggs and Tomlinson both are known for their skill as jump rope freestylists, an event that is similar in some ways to a gymnast’s floor routine.

Some of the sport’s other events include single rope speed, which is the jump rope version of a sprint; the double-dutch speed relay; and the three-minute speed, “which is just a grueling event,” said Chris Holmes, the vice-president of the AMJRF. That event requires competitors to jump rope as fast as they can for three minutes straight.

Holmes, himself a former world champion, started the first college jump rope team at Texas A&M during the 1990s. It quickly fell apart, he said, after he graduated, and that’s part of the reason why he’s driven to bolster the sport’s presence. Now he’s a volunteer with the AMJRF and he coaches a team in Katy, Texas.

“I grew up doing this,” said Holmes, whose day job is in computer programming. “I started when I was 8 years old. And by the time I was 18, I had traveled to more places than most people get to go in a lifetime. I got to go all over the world.”

He listed some places where he traveled for competitions: Spain, Belgium, Holland, South Korea.

“It’s incredible that a $10 jump rope took me all over the world,” he said.

Tomlinson and Boggs have had similar experiences. Both have Instagram followings of more than 5,000, and both teach and regularly travel to competitions. They are both stars in a sport that many might be surprised to learn is a sport at all. After a stop in Raleigh, the show goes on for the nation’s most competitive jump ropers.