The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is seen on TV or in person every year by millions of people, and when it winds its way through the streets of New York City next week, four Harford County residents will be among the participants.
Spencer and Sydney Billings, Megan Reith and Kayla Turner, all part of the Harford County-based Hoppin' Hawks Jump Rope Club, will join more than 100 other jump-ropers from across the United States as they perform as part of Team JUMP, or Jumpers United for Macy's Parade.
This will be the third time jump rope has appeared in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, as 108 jumpers, ages 12 to 24, from teams across the country will be part of this year's event.
"I was really, really excited that I will be on TV and be part of the Thanksgiving Day parade. It's a huge honor for me to be able to participate in it because I've seen it on TV my whole life, and I get to be in it," Spencer Billings, a 16-year-old Harford Tech junior, who started jump-roping eight years ago, said.
Jumpers perform a single-rope routine the entire 3-mile parade route, stopping at Herald Square for a one-minute live segment featuring their double dutch routine. The parade is broadcast live on NBC TV.
Jumpers had to apply to be in the parade and, to qualify, they had to have participated in the parade before or have medaled at a national or international competition.
Spencer Billings and Turner were bronze medalists in pairs and silver medalists in Double Dutch pair freestyle at the World Jump Rope competition in 2014
Turner, who watches the parade on TV every year, admits she is a little anxious about being in it.
"I was kind of shocked. I've been watching the Thanksgiving parade since I was little. I never expected I would be in it. I'm really excited for it," she said. "I'm a little nervous. It's the biggest thing I've ever done."
For Reith, a coach for the Hoppin' Hawks since 2003, this will be her second Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The 30-year-old pre-school teacher at Churchville Presbyterian also jumped in 2013.
"It's a once in a lifetime experience and I'm experiencing it twice. How many people can say that? I get to do it once and I get to go back," she said.
Spencer Billings won't be jumping the entire route, only the live televised segment. He hurt his ankle and won't be able to do the whole thing. His sister, Sydney, a Hoppin' Hawks assistant coach, is stepping in his place for the three-mile route.
She started training with her brother, Turner and Reith when they found out they were going, just to be able to offer encouragement.
"I'm really excited. I wasn't even planning on going to New York. Now I get the opportunity to do the parade, so that's just really exciting," Sydney Billings said. "It will be a really, really cool experience I never thought I'd be able to do."
Getting in shape
Starting from Central Park, the athletes will be jumping the entire parade route that winds through New York City in front of a crowd that is usually more than 3.5 million people. To jump the entire distance, the athletes have to be in top condition. Months of practice will culminate with the cadenced steps that will be seen across the country live from New York City.
Jumping three miles isn't something they can just go out and do. Reith, Turner and the Billings siblings have been practicing for months. In addition to their regular Hoppin' Hawks practices, they have additional workouts when they just jump rope through neighborhoods.
"We started jumping in neighborhoods, just to jump and work on our endurance. We start at one mile to build up to the end, now we're at 3.5 miles," Sydney Billings said.
It takes them about an hour and a half to do 3 miles, she said.
"It's a great workout. You can definitely feel it the next day," she said. "It's a great bonding experience with the people you're doing it with."
Precision is the name of the game for this performance, and they have to be in sync with the 100-plus other jumpers.
The team got together in Ohio last month to learn both routines. Since then, they've been practicing on their own. They'll have two days before the parade to work as a group and get their timing down.
"We really have to train and be very precise every time we practice it. If a little detail is off, it could mess up the whole big picture for everything else," Spencer Billings, whose mom, Sheri Billings, is also a coach, said. "You have to make sure you're dead on every time."
It's a 'sport'
Jump-roping isn't something most people think of as a sport, which is why jump-ropers love to share with others.
"We love teaching new people about it. Once they come and see it they're like, whoa. it's a whole different world, a whole different language," Reith said.
Hoppin' Hawks is a program run through the Churchville Recreation Council, and meets two to three times a week at Prospect Mill Elementary.
The group has a performance team that goes to local school and community events.
Thursday nights are for instruction, when coaches and older students will teach anyone 5 and older how to jump rope, she said.
Turner, 16, and in 11th grade at C. Milton Wright High School, has been jumping rope since she was in the fifth grade when the Hoppin' Hawks came to her elementary school.
"I had two friends already in it, they told me to join and I did," Turner said. "It's different from every other sport."
The former dancer and gymnast didn't think she would still be doing it.
"I didn't really know what it was. When I asked my mom to join, she didn't know what it was. I didn't expect to be a jumper, it just kind of happened, I guess," said Turner, who will be going to New York with her mom, younger sister and grandmother.
Spencer Billings, who plays volleyball at runs track at Harford Tech, joined Hoppin' Hawks in second grade, after he saw some of the girls in his church perform.
"I thought it was really cool and I wanted to try it. I signed up and I've been doing it ever since I was a little kid," he said. "I get to inspire so many other kids to jump, too. You get to show other people how cool of a sport it is and how much you can do with it and be creative."
Spencer got his older sister involved. Their mom, Sheri Billings, is a Hoppin' Hawks coach.
"I saw how much he enjoyed it, so I started the next time it was offered," Sydney Spencer said.
She enjoys it so much that she returned as an assistant coach after graduating from high school.
A junior majoring in early childhood and special education at Millersville University, Sydney said the Hoppin' Hawks are her second family.
"I really enjoy the sport. And you go to a lot of competitions and really get close with everyone," she said. "I really like the environment and I wanted to help keep that going by coming back to coach."