How did an underprivileged school in China produce the world’s best jump ropers?
Cen Xiaolin is bashful when people bring up his nickname—“world’s strongest thigh.”
“That’s so dramatic,” Cen says with a chuckle.
Dramatic though it may be, there is some truth to it. At the 2019 World Jump Rope Championship in Oslo, the then-17-year-old teenager skipped 1,141 times in three minutes. That’s 6.3 jumps per second.
He went on to smash four other records at the competition.
Cen is the result of a rigorous jump rope program at Qixing Primary School in Guangzhou, a city in southern China. He and his teammates have won gold medals at domestic and international competitions.
But success did not come easy.
The majority of students at Qixing Primary School came from local farming families or migrant families outside the city. Before the introduction of jump rope, the school was in dire financial straits.
“When I first arrived at the school in 2010, I was shocked by the poor condition of it,” says Lai Xuanzhi, the skipping coach at Qixing. “Grass grew high in the playground and morale among the students was low.”
Lai says the school was “on the edge of the world.”
“The students felt inferior in their hearts,” he says. “When they saw teachers coming, they’d bow their heads or try to avoid them.”
The principal at the time, Zhang Youlian, admits the school’s environment was not helpful for students’ development.
“They lacked honors or awards since they seemed not to succeed in anything,” she told the state broadcaster CCTV last July. “So we hired a professional PE teacher in 2010, hoping to bring some changes.”
Lai was the first full-time PE teacher in the school’s 55-year history and the first with a university degree, having majored in basketball at Wuhan Sports University.
At first, Lai taught students football, basketball, and athletics, but a shortage of staff, equipment, and money proved too much to overcome.
When the school ran out of money to buy equipment, Lai collected ropes and metal cables to make jump ropes. He decided he would teach the kids how to skip.
Lai says his biggest obstacle was parents who objected to their children skipping because it ate into their study time.
“I visited each family to persuade the parents to agree,” Lai says. “I remember seeing one family 21 times.”
Among the more than 50 students in his first jump rope squad in 2012, only five remained a year later, Lai says, including Cen.
But they persevered, training two to three hours a day. Their big break came when they won awards at a national skipping contest in China in 2014.
(Read more: The rise and rise again of China’s streetball king)
The following year, Qixing students were chosen to represent their country at a competition in the United Arab Emirates.
For many, the flight to Dubai was their first time on a plane.
Lai says the success of his students was the result of hard work—and emphasizes that it did not come at the expense of academic effort.
He says his students have all earned high marks and gone onto middle schools where their tuition and living costs are partially subsidized by local education authorities because of their sporting achievements.
For Cen, who is now studying at Huadong Middle School, jump rope has opened up other opportunities. While many of his peers appear destined for a life of factory or farm work, Cen has other aspirations.
“I’ve been to Dubai, Malaysia, Sweden and Norway [to compete],” he says. “I never thought I would be able to represent China in international competitions.”
He dreams of becoming a teacher someday and inspiring a new generation to take up jump rope.
“I love my life,” he says. “Although I need to train hard for two to four hours a day, skipping has brought me much more joy than pain.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.