It all started with a jump rope: from the pavement to a world stage

By Anna Mudd

Onstage at Radio City Music Hall, Eddie Yacynych’s back was turned to the rows packed with “America’s Got Talent” audience members. The blacklights illuminated the neon stripes on his white outfit, as if someone had taken a huge highlighter to him. Then, the music started: The electropop tune of Closer” blasted through huge loudspeakers. The jump rope in his hands began slicing the air, his feet tapping the floor. Hitting each beat, he was a human metronome.

He wasn’t nervous. He and his Flight Crew Jump Rope teammates had practiced this routine for two weeks, perfecting each flip, each repetition of the ropes, and each bounce on the huge built-in trampoline. The producers had even brought stand-in judges to create a more realistic practice environment. When the real Heidi Klum flashed before Eddie’s eyes rather than her blonde stand-in, it was if they had already met.

Back home in Ellicott City, Maryland, Bob and Marianne Yacynych sat on the couch in their TV room, their eyes glued to the screen watching their son. They feared he would trip, fall or miss a beat. With jump rope, mistakes are hard to conceal.

“We had a lot of problems breathing,” said his father.

The beginnings of a jump rope champion

Now 28, Eddie’s been jump roping since first grade. “I remember starving myself and practicing like crazy,” he said, thinking back to his early competing days. He’d spend hours practicing in his driveway, the rope becoming a part of him, the movement as natural as his heartbeat.

He remembers the first time he was drawn to the sport. The Yacynychs were at the local fall festival with the usual kids shrieking, hay rides, a corn maze, crunching leaves and people biting into crisp candy apples. But Eddie’s eyes fixed on the Kangaroo Kids, a children’s jump roping team. They were all in-sync. Suddenly, one kid flipped, landing in rhythm with the team, the jump ropes never faltering.

Eddie went home and tried to mimic the jumpers. Eventually, his parents encouraged him to try out for the Kangaroo Kids, which had teams for kindergarten through high school. But Eddie was too shy.

So, his mother tricked him, saying they were just watching a practice. In the gym, the coach asked Eddie to go jump in the corner, then she asked to see his tricks. Later, she declared Eddie had made the team. He was angry with his mom, but he went back the next day, and began practicing regularly with the group.

“After a while he was always the first one in the car to go to practice,” said Bob. By fifth grade, Eddie advanced to the competition team.

It wasn’t always easy. Not everyone saw the sport in the same light as Eddie or others in the jumping community. Over the years, kids at school called him names like “pansy.”

I was bullied for it. It’s so funny because it was people who didn’t really know what it was but once they saw they were like, ‘holy shit that’s actually cool.’”

His middle school math teacher, Ms. Sites, learned he was a jumper and made him perform in front of the class. As the class shuffled down to the cafeteria to watch Eddie, his heart beat out of his chest. But after his routine, everyone understood it was more than average playground jump roping.

Even if they hadn’t changed their minds, it wouldn’t matter to Eddie.  He loved performing. Once he began jumping, nothing stopped him.

“One task of parenting is to help your kid find his passion,” said Bob. “And when he does you don’t have to make him practice or work at it. Eddie found this in jump rope.

His first competition was at their local high school. There weren’t many competitors, but Eddie was scared out of his mind. He’d picked the song accompanying his routine, “At the Hop,” from his parents’ 1950s mixtape. He completed the routine perfectly, hitting every move, jump and trick in sync to each “bop, bop, bop.”

After this came many more competitions. Eddie said he was so scared of making mistakes, he never made any.

His coach, “Mister Mac,” told him to smile at the judges. “I took that to heart.  It became my signature. I would always have a goofy smile on my face,” said Eddie.

Jumping around the world

That year, he made it to nationals at Disney World. A lot of the parents on his team told him not to expect much, warning that he probably wouldn’t even place.

He and his partner got the bronze medal, surprising everyone.

By high school, Eddie was at the top of his age group, placing in every competition and going to nationals every year. He made Team USA and went to worlds in Canada, South Africa, and London. Judges, parents, and fellow competitors recognized his smile, precision, and how high he could jump. Even Bob became a staple in the crowd. He was known to scream “shock the world,” to Eddie, his voice bellowing over the fellow parents.

As Eddie met people from across the world, the shy kid persona he had before competing faded. “People knew I was good at what I did and there was this confidence with it, which really helped me,” Eddie said.

After he graduated, Eddie went to the University of Maryland, where there was no jump rope team. But, his love for it never faltered over the four years. Encouraged by his parents, he put off physical therapy school after graduating, and he pursued jump rope professionally for two years.

Even when jumping was Eddie’s income source, it never became monotonous. “One thing that keeps me passionate about this sport is the rhythm of it — the choreography, the creativity, the music.”

Flight Crew’s mission to jump

Lee Reisig, founder of Flight Crew Jump Rope, met Eddie at one of the competitions. Flight Crew is an assortment of jumpers from across the country, many of whom connected back in their competing days.

Reisig had a similar experience. His obsession began the first moment he picked up a rope. He loves the possibility of constantly taking it to the next level. “Eventually I became the guy who was doing skills that had never been done before,” he said. He decided to stick with it.

“If you’re one of the top people in the world at something, there should be a way to make that a career, and that was my goal,” said Reisig.

Jump roping is becoming more well-known because of people like Reisig and Eddie. Instagram accounts like @eddiejumprope showcase jumpers doing crazy tricks and boost the sport past the confines of school gymnasiums.

“Even if it’s a five second clip of somebody doing a really crazy trick, more people have seen it and understand what you mean when you say ‘oh, I’m a competitive jump roper,’” said Reisig.

More collegiate jump rope teams are emerging too. Recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, Graham Booth, started Carolina Jump Rope in 2017 during his freshman year. The club competes in the yearly National Collegiate Jump Rope Summit. In Booth’s first year, there were only seven teams competing, but fast forward to his senior year there were 25.

“A great thing that Eddie and Lee have done is expose jump rope to more people, making it more mainstream so people see it before running into it on a college campus,” said Booth.

Eddie joined Flight Crew after graduating from college. With them, he performed on Disney Cruises and resorts across the world. He booked gigs like Audi commercials and “The Late Late Show with James Corden”.

The highlight for both Flight Crew and Eddie remains their 2014 debut on “America’s Got Talent” where the team made it to the semifinals.

Standing on the stage at Radio City for that last performance of the show, Eddie looked at the audience thinking “this is nothing.” He had prepared his whole life. He’d taken the passion  discovered on the asphalt driveway of his childhood home and turned it into a profession on the world stage.

Edited by Alana Askew

This ‘crazy idea’ turned out to be a university favorite for car-loving students

By Drew Wayland

“This is the OG,” said Sheel Chandra, grinning as he pulled a set of keys from his sweatpants pocket. The lone keychain in his collection is a black Hot Wheels car, a Cadillac ATS with spinning silver rims.  “This is where it all started.”

The ATS on his keyring is a mirror image of the Cadillac in his driveway, only with more scratches and dings from years of childhood play. Chandra’s “big boy car” is well maintained, a sleek low-riding machine that serves as a testament to his love for vehicles that put the driver just inches from the road.

The rise of passion

“I had the super typical car person upbringing,” he said, “from the Hot Wheels to working on cars with my dad, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to start messing around with my own cars once I was old enough. Finding the community that comes with being into cars didn’t happen until I got to college.”

Chandra, 20, is the president of Carolina Cars, an organization that began as a UNC-Chapel Hill interest club and has since expanded to a community of over 130 drivers in the Triangle. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Carolina Cars has become a thriving community of support and socially distant recreation for its members. Chandra founded the club in the beginning of 2019 with Max Nunez, a fellow car fanatic from his hometown of Cary, North Carolina.

“It was a little different for me,” said Nunez, “growing up I didn’t know much about cars at all until I was in high school and I stumbled into the local car community.” Nunez, who drives a 1998 five speed Honda Prelude, started hitching rides to car meets in Raleigh when he was 15 and fell in love with the culture.

“Cars feel different from other hobbies because it’s usually not something you actively participate in, like sports or art.” said Nunez. “It’s more about expression and enjoyment, creating an extension of yourself.” He pointed at his Prelude, customized with colorful interior lighting and a specialized turbo engine, “I look at that and I can say, ‘that’s me.’”

Cars have always brought people together, from the humble roots of the modern car meet-up in 1960s California to drag racing, drifting, and other vehicle sports that have emerged in the decades since.

The Triangle is home to one of the East Coast’s most active car scenes; there are weekly meets in Raleigh and Durham which host hundreds of cars in Cookout parking lots and empty warehouse loading zones. The meets begin as legal gatherings, but as the night goes on and rubber burns with increasing noise, the police routinely roll in to break up the events.

The start of it all

Chandra met Nunez at a Shell station in Cary, both on their way to a car meet in Raleigh back in 2018. Chandra wanted to look under the hood of Nunez’s Prelude, and when he saw the custom engine, he knew they would be friends for a long time.

“At the time we both independently had ideas about creating a car club at UNC but were pretty lost as to how we could make it happen,” said Nunez. “But when we had two brains on the project, both of us constantly talking about our cars and the meets we missed from back home, we were finally able to put something together.”

After struggling to find people who were interested in joining the club, Chandra suggested trying something a little unorthodox.

“I said to Max, ‘I have a crazy idea,’” Chandra said. “Let’s put the whip on the quad.”

Without seeking permission from the university, because according to Nunez, it’s “better to ask for forgiveness,” the two students woke up at the crack of dawn and drove a show car onto a brick plaza on UNC’s lower quad. By 8 a.m., university security was already preparing to tow the vehicle, but enough photos had been taken of the electric blue Subaru to spread the word about Carolina’s newest car community.

“We had over 70 people show up to our interest meeting after that,” says Chandra, “and once we had said our piece about what we wanted this car club to be, we told everyone they were free to go. Not a single person stood up, and we all hung out until like 1 in the morning.”

Over the next year, Carolina Cars became the kind of community that all college clubs strive to create. Members became close friends, went to meets together, helped each other with car builds and went driving down backroads on weekends. The feature events have always been the weekly cruises, where everyone gets together and drives a preset route, usually on two-lane roads in nearby Chatham County.

Not even the pandemic can separate them

The club was growing at a steady pace until March, when the university instructed clubs to end all in-person activity due to the coronavirus pandemic. Luckily, Chandra and Nunez knew that if there was anything one can do safely in a world of social distancing, it was driving cars.

“We’re really fortunate that we’ve seen even more growth and activity since COVID started,” says Chandra. “We stopped encouraging people to go to meets and instead started leaning heavily on our cruises, which get between 50 and 70 cars on a good day where they used to get 30 at most.”

Chandra likes to show off the organization’s group chat, which he claims is the most active group chat at Carolina.

“Look at that,” he said, pointing at his phone screen. A notification from the Carolina Cars group buzzes in every few seconds. “That’s basically all the time. Hundreds of messages a day, about cars obviously but mostly just friends talking and helping each other out with things.”

Nunez adds that he has to put the chat on mute if he ever wants to use his phone for something else.

As the community continues to grow, Chandra and Nunez’s friendship strengthens alongside it. They formed their own ‘bubble’ during the pandemic, with Nunez quarantining in a tent outside of Chandra’s house for two weeks, just so they could work on a 1970s Jeep restoration they started back in January.

“Cars bring people together; that’s what we’re here for,” said Nunez. “It sucks having to be apart from my friends and family, but Sheel and I get to drive our backroads and fix our cars up whenever we want. That’s really the release I need in a time like this.”

On any given Saturday morning, they will be out on the pavement, taking tight turns at speeds most people (including the police) might find aggressive, enjoying the thrill and company of someone who shares their passions.

“Max still kicks my a– on Luther Road,” Chandra joked, “but I usually get a smoother ride than him on just about every other spot we hit.”

“He’s just talking sh–,” said Max, “he’s jealous ‘cause the Caddy can’t keep up with me.”

Edited by Sarah DuBose