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Kids Learn The Fitness Ropes

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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Few things are as simple as a jump rope. Just a plastic cord, really, with a couple of handles at the ends, made quite literally for child's play.

But in the hands of Rene Bibaud, a jump rope blurs and whistles, flies over her shoulder, emerges from behind her back like a crazed snake, twirls overhead like a lasso, loops and then flares.

No one needs to tell her there are worse things than being a 34-year-old who jumps rope for a living.

"Your parents are at work now," Bibaud told a group of goggle-eyed kids at Cherry Crest Elementary School in Bellevue earlier this week, "and I'm here jumping rope with you."

Bibaud is one of the more unusual soldiers in the fight against childhood obesity. Worries about the growing girth of America's children contributed to a change in the way gym teachers teach physical education, moving away from activities such as dodge ball and climbing ropes to activities that can be applied over a lifetime of fitness, such as exercise bikes, rock climbing and -- jumping rope.

There was a time, though, about three years ago when Bibaud wondered whether she could keep making a living this way. The five-time world jump-roping champion and holder of the two-minute double-dutch speed record was 31 years old and leaving the Cirque du Soleil.

Bibaud said she knew she couldn't jump rope in a circus forever. But what exactly does a jump roper do after she leaves the circus? The want ads were full of listings for janitors and jewelers, but they lacked many openings for jump ropers.

"I didn't get straight A's," she said. "I'm mediocre at most things, except jumping rope."

Bibaud grew up in Kirkland. Her father worked in a mailroom. "I was a shy kid who didn't like to stand out if I hadn't done something before," she said, adding she was "kind of clunky."

And so it meant something to her to have her jump-rope coach at Kirkland's Helen Keller Elementary School pound home several points: that it's OK to make mistakes, that she shouldn't worry about how she measured up to others and that she should just try her best.

"It defined my destiny," Bibaud said.

Without the lessons in elementary school, "I wouldn't have taken any chances," she said. "I wouldn't have anything I have now."

She and three friends from her elementary school team, the Hotdogs, kept on jumping their way to three world championships in high school. They'd win a fourth in Toronto in 1997 when Bibaud was 18.

There are some jump-roping teams that try to be too flashy, Bibaud says. They go faster than they can sustain and inevitably get tangled up.

Savvy jump-roping audiences, like the one in Toronto, recognize this. The crowd sat quietly, unimpressed when Bibaud's team started out fast.

There's often chatter in double-dutch -- the jumper shouting at the two people swinging the rope -- "faster, slower," the swingers shouting to each other -- "to the left, to the right." But that day, Bibaud's 37-year-old brother Paul said, "all you heard was the whooshing of the rope and her feet tapping, puh puh puh puh puh."

At six times a second, Bibaud's feet sounded like a downpour, like a drum roll, the tension growing, until she wobbled away rubber-legged, having set a world double-dutch speed record by jumping 756 times in two minutes.

On a projection screen at Cherry Crest Elementary School, Bibaud showed a video of her performing with Cirque du Soleil in Amsterdam around 1996. Her team disbanded after high school, and Bibaud began teaching fitness classes and physical education at private schools, before she came out of retirement in 1995 to win an individual world's title. That's when the circus called.

In the circus video, she wears a red leotard, her hair dyed a flaming red, the rope seeming to fly 10 different directions at once. As she jump-ropes past a line of acrobats, each jumps through her rope and does a tumble.

As it happens, when Bibaud left the circus and wondered what to do next, physical education teachers were worrying about the rising rate of obesity among kids. The emphasis shifted toward teaching kids how to stay active over a lifetime, said Lorie Dunn, state president of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education and Dance.

That's why Dunn, the P.E. teacher at Hazen High School in Renton, is using exercise bicycles in class, and it's why Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Patti Spencer said her district brought in rock-climbing walls in recent years.

It also opened up a market for Bibaud, who now travels the country talking to schools about the benefits of jumping rope. The other day, she looked exhausted, just back from a weeklong tour of demonstrating jump roping at schools in Michigan.

When jumping rope takes you around the world, it becomes about more than just jumping rope.

"There are days when I spend four hours alone in front of a mirror working on one little routine. I don't think people get that," said Bibaud, who also makes instructional videos and does corporate presentation through her Seattle company, Ropeworks.

At the Bellevue school, as she was about to teach 8-year-olds Ryley Martin and Stephen Fry and 7-year-old Emily Callison how to do the "pretzel" -- in which they tried to jump rope with one hand while holding up one leg with the other -- Bibaud asked Stephen, "If we make a mistake, is that OK?"

"Yes," Stephen said.

"And what happens if we do?"

"Keep trying," he said.

And after they did end up resembling a pretzel tangled in rope, Bibaud told the kids: "We've gotten better today in about five minutes. What if I gave you another five minutes? Another day? What if you worked on it every day? Now imagine everything else you want to get better at."

With that, she picked up her jump rope and went home from work.

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