As the 16 jump rope athletes headed into their 12th lap around the quarter-mile track at Howard High School — their ropes twirling, whirring and slapping in rhythm — the head coach of the Kangaroo Kids was ecstatic.
"Just look at them! They are on their last lap and they still look good!" Jim McCleary yelled gleefully into the chilly night air, marveling at the group's crisp, synchronized movements after an hour-long effort.
Maintaining the precision of their choreographed routine for 3 miles — following a two-hour indoor practice, no less — is a testament to the students' unflagging devotion to the sport of precision jump rope, he said.
That commitment has earned them a coveted spot in the iconic Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, which is marking its 87th year.
The special Kangaroo Kids contingent was selected by audition from the 30-member travel team composed of 7th to 12th graders, which is part of the 200-member county organization. They will perform as members of Jumpers United for the Macy's Parade, or JUMP, which is composed of 207 jump rope athletes from 45 states.
The mega-group will entertain an anticipated crowd of 3.5 million spectators lining the streets and 50 million at-home viewers, according to a parade website.
The parade kicks off at 9 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 28, in Central Park West and culminates at Macy's in Herald Square. Eight of the Kangaroo Kids will go on to perform a televised one-minute routine with 64 other jumpers to the song, "I Need Your Love," by Calvin Harris with Ellie Goulding. The other half of the Howard County team will join in a separate VIP performance.
The kids have been jumping a dozen times around an outdoor track twice a week since September to simulate the 2.8-mile parade route. With their ropes hitting the pavement nearly every second, that's a lot of revolutions and an exhaustive workout.
"The big price they pay to do their sport is conditioning," said McCleary, an adaptive physical education teacher who has taught children with special needs in Howard County schools for 41 years.
McCleary, a 2009 inductee into the Howard County Community Sports Hall of Fame, is in his 31st year as head coach of the Kangaroo Kids. He will serve again as the team chaperone to New York, having accompanied a JUMP group to the Macy's parade four years ago.
During the 2009 trip, students gave an impromptu freestyle performance for passersby on the streets of Times Square near their hotel, said McCleary, 64. He expects this year to be no different.
"They just love to jump and can't get enough of it," he said.
To stay in shape and in sync the team practices every Tuesday and Thursday, said Laura Ciarrocchi, an adult coach. Her 12-year-old daughter, Maria, a student at Bonnie Branch Middle School, is on the team.
"Many of these kids are junior coaches, too," she said, explaining that they work with younger team members. The nonprofit organization founded in 1978 offers seven classes by age and skill level for ages 6 and up, and holds regular practices at the Meadowbrook Athletic Complex in Ellicott City.
Kangaroo Kids "consumes everything," summed up Ryan McGuire, a 16-year-old junior at Centennial High who's been jumping for 10 years.
But he's not complaining about the rigorous schedule.
"I am thrilled to be going to New York," McGuire said. "The second I got the email [about earning a spot on the team] I told my parents." They and his two younger sisters will join him on a train to New York on Monday to extend McGuire's Thursday performance into a family sightseeing vacation.
Cecelia Hartley, a 17-year-old senior at Hammond High, is in her 12th year with the Kangaroo Kids.
"I love how we all stay together as a team," she said. "We're all very close and it's a good way to stay in shape and have fun."
Hartley also thanked JUMP coordinator Pam Evans, who organized the national group from Medina, Ohio, where she is head coach for the Heartbeats Jump Rope Team.
"We're all so grateful for everything she's done," she said. "This has taken a lot of work on her part."
Evans, who has coached jump rope for 16 years, first assembled a national team for the Macy's Parade in 2009 and has applied every year since in hopes of repeating what she calls "an amazing experience."
"My goal is to continue to apply for the parade," she said in an email. "If I can do the parade every 3 to 5 years… many jumpers [will] have the opportunity to participate."
McCleary is looking forward to taking the trip, and couldn't be more proud of all of the Kangaroo Kids, he said.
"I continue to do this mostly because it's fun," he said. "And they're great kids."
The Kangaroo Kids Precision Jump Rope Team will also perform Dec. 1 at the Festival of Trees, a Kennedy Krieger Institute benefit at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, and at Holiday Hop on Dec. 8, a free event at the Gary J. Arthur Community Center, located on Route 97 in Cooksville. For details, go to kangarookids.org.