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Photography by Chris Lake
The scene inside the Glenview Park Center does not immediately call to mind Olympic glory. It is quiet, even mellow. A dozen girls are working out, mostly stretching and holding Pilates-like poses in a mat-lined gym that is only provisionally partitioned from the basketball court next door. Above their heads, a few senior citizens make their way slowly around the second-floor jogging track.
A single coach—tall and lean, with the elegant posture of a ballerina—calls several of the young women together and, with a few words, starts them on the routine that will occupy them for the next hour: tumbling and tossing ropes back and forth to one another in an intricately choreographed pattern. They repeat each sequence of the routine ten times, keeping count themselves, matching their pace to a musical soundtrack playing only in their minds. The complexity of what they’re doing is almost mind-boggling: Moving together in a straight line down the length of the mat, the girls simultaneously keep five ropes in the air, catching and tossing them to each other in rapid succession—it’s five-person juggling with complicated, synchronized dancing thrown in. The longer one watches, the more impossible it seems. But, more times than not, they get it exactly right. Then they count off and do it again.
Meanwhile, another girl, 14-year-old Marlee Shape, is tossing a similar rope on her own, throwing it high in the air and executing a complicated series of poses before lying down on the mat, knees bent, and catching it, seemingly effortlessly, with a single, outstretched arm. Occasionally, the rope gets caught in the rafters of the high ceiling, where the basketball backboards have been cranked up. Unfazed, she grabs a plastic hoop from the corner, throws it upwards, and dislodges the rope on the first try.