Founder of group helped jump-roping leap ahead


ALL YOU CAN do is learn from your mistakes. Last Sunday's article on this page about the Kangaroo Kids jump-rope organization contained an editor-injected mistake.

Lesson one, reinforced, again: Never assume anything in journalism. Jim McCleary seems as if he's led the 23-year-old Howard County club forever; actually, he and Fulton's Jean Hodges began leading it in 1984. But, to correct the error, Don Disney, who directs the county high schools' athletic programs these days, founded and named the Kangaroo Kids.

Lesson two: You never can tell when something small and innocent will blossom, in this case, a young phys-ed teacher's applying something he liked to getting kids off their duffs. Thus, Atholton Elementary School, where Disney was teaching, was the Kangaroo Kids' incubator.

In the beginning

It was 1974, give or take, Disney said; aerobic exercise had become a big thing (Jackie Sorenson was huge), and looking for ways to improve the fitness of youngsters in his classes, he started challenging kids to jump rope for three minutes.

"No one could do it," he said. "So I made up a little club that I called the Kangaroos for those who practiced enough to accomplish that - wrote the kid's name on a list, stuff like that. It started out as an endurance thing.

"One of the things I learned was the empowerment of motivation. I remember driving around the neighborhood and seeing kids practicing on their parking pads with a stopwatch."

Before long, some of his pupils were not only finishing the three minutes but asking for more - learning to jump backward or cross-handed. Practices before or after school resulted.

"I taught them double Dutch [jumping two ropes simultaneously], which was pretty much an urban activity then, not suburban, and a few of them were even able to learn some juggling," said Disney, who also dabbled in that skill. "We even had some who could juggle while doing double Dutch."

The club formed in 1977, said Disney, who pegs the date to "Stars Wars" hitting theaters; some of the movie's music was perfect for his rope-jumpers, who by then were being invited to do occasional shows.

"My thing was to have them jumping in large groups - like synchronized swimming, not the smaller or individual things they do competitively now," Disney said. His kids found themselves in a TV spot for the American Heart Association that lasted into the 1980s, and at one Jump Rope for Heart event, they raised $32,000 in pledges.

Disney credits his father with teaching him to skip rope.

"My father did a little boxing, and it was part of his training. I thought it was fun, and so I could always jump pretty good," said Disney, who still can go for 30 or 40 minutes in one of the more aerobic forms of exercise used these days by some athletes in any sport you can name.

In 1984, after Disney had been promoted into school administration, the club passed to McCleary and Hodges, mother of two of Disney's original jumpers.

"I guess I get lot of credit because I'm a phys-ed teacher, but Jean did about 90 percent of the organizational work until she retired two years ago," said McCleary, who got to know Disney well through graduate classes at Morgan State University. "She helped choreograph routines, run tryouts, set up practices, coached - she's been really instrumental."

When the Kangaroo Kids started, Disney said, jumping rope was not the national competitive sport it has become. "I'd heard about a club in Denver and another out in Portland or Seattle," he said, "but they weren't doing the same things, and there wasn't any organization."

A growing activity

Still, like in-line skating and skateboarding, jumping rope spread fast, wide and far. Clubs can be found worldwide, and both McCleary and Hodges are directors of the 5-year-old U.S. Amateur Jump Rope Federation, which numbers about 400 clubs in 47 states.

Hodges works to spread the activity internationally, McCleary said.

They were in San Diego last week for an Amateur Athletic Union meeting. McCleary heads AAU's jump-rope committee, hoping some day, he said, to see jump-rope in the Olympics.

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