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King of Double Dutch

David Fisher builds an empire while jumping rope.

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By Justin Hayford

It's the year 2071. A smoldering, crippled space station falls out of its Martian orbit. Earth's repeated calls go unanswered. Everyone onboard must be dead. The Keebarians, evil intergalactic drug-running space chameleons, have struck again. Somewhere across the galaxy, diabolic lizard laughter rings out.

But wait. Something stirs in the wreckage. It's ten-year-old Charles "Skip" Roper, sole survivor of the carnage. Stranded with nothing to do for all eternity, Skip takes up jumping rope to pass the time and soon masters every trick--doubles, triples, quadruples, quintuples. His jump rope becomes a prehensile appendage--he can open doors and turn off alarm clocks with it. By the time the Intergalactic Drug Police rescue him, he's fashioned a colorful skintight outfit, sprouted plentiful muscles, and blossomed into the Rope Warrior, defender of Truth, Justice, and Cardiovascular Exercise.

In real life the Rope Warrior is David Fisher, an unassuming 32-year-old who makes his living jumping rope. He's the founder of Rope Warrior, Inc., a five-person performance team who make a tidy sum demonstrating the health benefits of, and their expertise at, jumping rope. "We're all Rope Warriors," he says with a laugh, "but I'm the Rope Warrior."

As a sideline, Fisher has written a book, Adventures of the Rope Warrior: A Legend Is Launched, the first in a projected series about his futuristic alter ego (at the end of book one the Keebarians have invented a highly addictive drug, Zacknu--the primary ingredient is arterial plaque--that they manufacture on earth and distribute all over the galaxy). He's just had 15,000 copies published. A children's activity book is also in the works, and Rope Warrior trading cards, more than 100,000 of them, should hit the streets soon. And someday there might be a breakfast cereal.

The real-life Rope Warrior grew up in Winnetka and went on to study marketing at Emory University, where he played volleyball and started jumping rope as part of his training. "I got addicted to it. It's one of the only cardiovascular activities that lets you express yourself."

After graduating he opened Big Hit, an amusement center in Atlanta with coin-operated sports games and batting cages. He taught kids how to hit and pitch and discovered he had an affinity for teaching. Big Hit had its seasonal ups and downs. "People would come in during the spring when it was packed and think the place was a gold mine," he says. "Except nobody's there in July, August, September, October."

In 1991 he moved back to Chicago and started volunteering with Jump for Heart, a program that sponsors school jump-rope marathons to raise money for the American Heart Association. He did numerous free exhibitions, until someone pointed out that talent like his could fetch a premium on the school-assembly circuit. Soon after, Fisher rented a booth at the Centre East Showcase, the annual school-assembly trade show in Skokie. "At first people stopping by my booth couldn't figure me out," he recalls. "They would say, 'You jump rope? And it's an hour show?'" Fisher was one of 40 performers selected from a pool of 200 and invited to show off onstage. He got about two dozen bookings that day. Today he runs his own business, lives at a tony downtown address, turns down promotional requests, and has a resting heart rate of 35 beats per minute.

"I think where others have made mistakes before, in terms of marketing jumping, is not realizing that this whole thing is a huge upside-down pyramid," he explains. "Every kid wants to jump rope or will at least give it a try. Then the numbers get smaller and smaller as people get older. Adults are too afraid to make mistakes, they're too intimidated. So when it comes to jumping, you've got little girls on the playground and professional boxers. And really nothing in between."

That's why he invented the Rope Warrior and his continuing saga. "In book two Skip finds out that it's human plaque in Zacknu. He reports this to the Intergalactic Drug Police and then volunteers to go to earth to teach all the kids to exercise, to cut off the supply of plaque. But the IDP says, we don't have time for that. Their solution is to blow up the earth and get rid of the supply. So book two starts with Skip sitting in an IDP ship, watching the earth blow up.

"The only way to save the planet is for Skip to go back in time and get people to exercise to eliminate the plaque supply. He's going to travel back to do school assemblies and educate the children of the world about physical fitness and solve the earth's troubles." Fisher runs his hand over the top of his head, where an expanse of skin is visible through thinning hair. "I think time travel is going to cause some of Skip's hair to fall out."

On a Monday morning in June Fisher is thundering along I-94 in the Warriormobile, actually a late-model minivan festooned with pictures of Fisher jumping rope while lying on his back. He veers onto the Eisenhower, hell-bent for Hillside. He's put nearly 40,000 miles on the Warriormobile in the last year and a half. During the school year he does 15 to 20 shows reaching 5,000 kids every week.

"I'm thinking I'll give each kid a trading card for free," he muses. "And when they find out there are 23 cards in the complete set--" His voice trails off. "I'm trying to decide if I should put my phone number on each card. No, that might be too much."

On the floor is a plastic bag stuffed with PowerBars. Recently the suits at PowerBar offered him a contract that would pay him a few bucks every time he mentioned their product's name on national television (he's been on several news and talk shows). "Can you believe that? I mean, they're the big company, I'm the small company, and they want to sell their product off of my publicity? That's screwy. I wanted to say to them, 'How about if you give me the names of all your sponsored athletes, and I'll give them $400 every time they mention the Rope Warrior?'"

For all his apparent marketing savvy, Fisher says he basically makes it all up as he goes along. "I don't know a thing about publishing," he says, shrugging. He's footing the bill for the first run of his book and throwing himself into its promotion. Last weekend he appeared at the American Booksellers Association convention, and this weekend he'll be at the national comic-book convention in Rosemont.

If the book bombs Fisher has other irons in the fire. Next January he's off to New Orleans for the National Association of Television Programming Executives convention, his script for a TV pilot under his arm. Wouldn't an animated Saturday-morning action-adventure series be an easier sell? "I'm working on that. Definitely."

Armed with only a plastic boom box and a gym bag stuffed with colored jump ropes, the Rope Warrior enters the Hillside Public Library and scans for life-forms. None to be found. He wanders for a bit, then pops his head into an office. A woman with a phone to her ear says, "Oh hi, Mr. Rope Warrior! I'll be right with you!"

While he waits he skims the children's magazines, wondering which ones should get his press kit. Sports Illustrated for Kids, definitely.

The librarian appears and leads him to the basement. "Will you be doing that glow-in-the-dark stuff?" she asks. "A lot of the girls upstairs want to come down for that."

She ushers him into a room with a low dropped ceiling and buzzing fluorescent lights. Using masking tape, she starts marking out a semicircle on the stained industrial carpet to keep the kids a safe distance from the whirling jump ropes.

Fisher jumps up and puts his head through a ceiling tile. "I'm gonna do some serious damage," he says. "Just gotta make sure I stay away from the sprinklers."

Finally about 50 noisy children file in and sit down on the floor. Some of their mothers take seats in a long line of plastic chairs along the wall. Fisher starts explaining the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise and the importance of large muscle groups in cardiovascular workouts to the children, who are already fidgeting at his feet. The moms stare vacantly.

But then Fisher flips and tosses his jump rope like Gene Kelly's umbrella. He pirouettes across the floor with the rope floating horizontally from his waist. And he jumps like mad, in cartoonish fast motion, feet and hands dissolving into a blur. The crowd is riveted.

He launches into his "footwork routine," jumping rope to "every song I could think of that has footwork associated with it": "The Twist," "Skip to My Lou," "Hava Nagila," "The Electric Slide." The rope never stops spinning. For "Can Can" he kicks above his head. For "Shall We Dance" he flies around the room like a young Yul Brynner. For "Stayin' Alive" he simply tears across the carpet strutting. He hasn't stopped jumping for 15 minutes. A few barely perceptible beads of sweat have appeared on his forehead.

"Wow! Cool! Awesome!" the kids cheer.

"I want to see his legs," one mom purrs.

And yes, he jumps rope while lying on his back, somehow hopping up off the floor twice a second or so.

Like any showman, he saves the best for last. Plunging the room into darkness, he pulls out two ropes lined with multicolored Glow Sticks. He whizzes them around, creating intricate glowing smears in the air. Sometimes interlocking circles of light separate and spin off in opposite directions, sometimes the lights spiral around each other like insane alien creatures. Finally he starts speed jumping, creating two enormous glowing disks that fly through the air at incredible speeds, veering heart-stoppingly close to the audience.

The children squeal.

"No matter how many tricks I know, there are a million more to learn," Fisher says. "I can go to jump-rope camp--there are such things--and learn something from a five-year-old. That's kind of neat. I mean, Michael Jordan can't go to basketball camp and learn some post-up move.

"I'm the luckiest person in the world. I'm so happy doing something I love every day, even the days I'm sore. Every morning I get up, take a couple of Motrins, some vitamins--my breakfast of champions. But when I get to the school and hear the kids start to scream I don't feel my knees anymore."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of David Fisher by Chip Williams.

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