“What I witnessed in Toronto was a baptism of fire. It taught me a lot,” says Keolebogile Mokolopo, 37, about a trip that changed her life in a sport that barely causes a ripple in South Africa: rope skipping or, as it is known in America, jump rope.
“The Chinese, for example, begin teaching the sport at a very early age. I was spellbound by their level of skill on display. In fact, I learnt that they now teach jump rope as part of the school curriculum. I decided after those championships that I was going to do something about that eye-opening experience.”
Mokolopo is referring to the 2006 World Rope Skipping Championships in Canada, where South Africa was making its debut. At the time, she was studying at the University of the Free State while also finding her feet in rope skipping.
She would go on to become a four-time World Championship medallist – three in her favourite discipline, the single rope freestyle, which is the most popular among competitors, and the fourth in the individual three-speed discipline. She would also start her own rope skipping club, coach in the sport and, just last year, get elected the second vice-president of the South African Gymnastics Federation, under which rope skipping falls.
It’s a remarkable career made more special because when she started university, she had promised herself to leave all sport behind and focus on her studies.
From the age of nine until her final school year, Mokolopo had been a gymnast at the Mmabana Cultural Centre in Thaba Nchu, Free State, where she grew up. She got into skipping by chance in 2002, during her second year at university, when introduced to it by Anna Gutter, project coordinator at Play2think, a programme that combines fitness and physical activity with education.
A few months later, at a training camp in Cape Town in 2003, she met the Belgian Maarten Goedemé, who was the skipping coach for South Africa’s national team from 2002 until 2008.
Seeing the possibilities
“Maarten was here in a volunteering capacity, participating in a project undertaken by an organisation called Score in collaboration with the South African Gymnastics Federation. That’s when I learnt about other aspects of the sport – the different scopes of performances and how far I could get professionally. I got to attend a coaching facilitator course that was on offer too,” Mokolopo says.
Her success in rope skipping seemed to have been preordained, according to Goedemé. “Truly speaking, she is special,” he says. “To perform in the sport in such an all-round manner is exceptional as she got introduced to it at quite an older age than the average jump rope performer out there.
“She did not only bring her top-notch performance game in competitions, but she was remarkable as a leader and a motivator to her team. During international competitions, she could be heard shouting almost above everyone else in the auditorium, enthusiastically cheering her teammates on.”
But there were many sacrifices involved. In some of the international competitions in which she took part, Mokolopo had to pay a portion of the fees and costs, mainly owing to a lack of funds from the gymnastics federation. And before that, while at university, the gymnasium where she trained meant a 14km round trip on foot.
Her face brightens when she talks about the club she started. “After I had moved to Secunda because of work, I started the Rize Up Skippers, a club that grew to nearly 40 members,” she says. “Between going to competitions, my work and the training, I got certified as a coach and a facilitator. I got to become the South African team head coach too. Some members of our club managed to achieve qualification for the World Championships, and we went along to Florida in the United States in 2018.
“To see the people that I have trained and coached participating at the highest level of the sport was simply a beautiful moment of my nearly 17 years in jump rope. And if you think about it, it is not too dissimilar to the trajectory that I took, although I only started later in life.”
Getting the word out
Mokolopo says because rope skipping is such a minor and uncelebrated sport in South Africa, she started to promote it as much as possible. “[It] is still a relatively unknown sport and does not get much attention, let alone media coverage. It then propelled me to go around communities, not only in Mpumalanga but across the country, to impart my knowledge.
“The aim was to empower others to participate in jump rope and as well give coaching lessons. I suppose the aim was to share what can be achieved through jump rope … [for] which you need only R30 for the rope, discipline, passion and support from the parents.”
Mokolopo’s combined experience as an athlete, coach, competition judge and facilitator broadened her outlook and helped her to be an administrator who knows what all the role players and the sport need to grow. She has made valuable contributions to many federations on the continent.
“[When] I got to compete at continental meets, I realised that there was a lag in terms of organisational structures. See, the talent is there, but everything needs to be channelled into cohesive operations. What I witnessed made me reflect from where I started,” she explains.
Having worked with her contemporaries in Botswana and Nigeria, as well as other countries affiliated to the Africa Jump Rope Federation, Mokolopo is excited about the progress made. Mozambique has made steady strides and had several national championships, while others are still trying to gain international recognition.
“In terms of eligibility to compete in international competitions, countries need to have a certain threshold of membership,” she says. “Recently, in late 2019, Botswana achieved that and was admitted to the International Jump Rope Federation. They were able to hold their first national championships soon after that. Nigeria held their first national championships in early 2020 too. So there is indeed progress being made on the continent.”
As the vice-president of the African federation and its board member representative at the international body, her mission – like all her colleagues – is for the sport to attain Olympic status. For this to happen, national federations first need to be recognised by their respective national sports authority.
In South Africa’s case, this has been done as the gymnastics federation operates with the support of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee. But there are only 20 countries in the International Jump Rope Federation that have recognition from their national federations, whereas 40 are needed for rope skipping to join the Olympic stage.
“It feels like a tall order at times, but certainly not something unattainable,” Mokolopo says confidently. “If you consider that some countries have just recently started and have been able to make rapid progress, it is encouraging and this wills us to carry on.”