TROY — All it took was 7 minutes to change Olivia Johnston’s life.
“I remember when I was like 6. I was doing cheerleading and we went to cheer at a Troy basketball game,” the Troy Junior High School eighth-grader said. “I remember after I got done cheering, I went up into the stands and I remember seeing this jump rope thing and was blown away. It was absolutely mind-blowing, seeing that.
“I had such a strong feeling. I said to myself, ‘That’s it. That’s what I’m going to do.’ After that, I never wanted to be a cheerleader again. I knew I wanted to be a Pop Rock.”
And for the past five years, that’s exactly what Johnston has done, becoming a member of the Troy Pop Rocks, a performance jump rope team that performs during halftime at high school and college basketball games. For the past three summers, the team also has performed atop the dugouts and on the field at Dayton Dragons baseball games, along with select guest appearances at local events.
The team, which was founded by Josh Oakes, a physical education teacher at Heywood and Hook elementary schools in Troy, originally started as an after-school activity for a handful of jumpers. That first season culminated in a single performance in front of friends and family members. Since then, the team has grown to include between 25-29 jumpers and roughly 20 performances every year and added assistant coach Sharon Freeman.
In addition to area high schools, the team also performs at colleges, including the University of Tennessee, the University of Illinois, West Virginia University and the University of Dayton. Earlier this season, the Pop Rocks performed at the famed Cameron Indoor Stadium, on the campus of Duke University.
The team — which features jumpers in grades 3-8 — will perform this Friday, Feb. 8, on their home court at halftime of the Butler at Troy boys basketball game. On March 15, the team will perform its final show of the season at the Ohio High School Athletic Association girls basketball state tournament games. That also will be the final show in the careers of six Troy Junior High School eighth-graders: Johnston, AnnMarie Palombi, Katie Bertke, Megan Robinson, Elise Hempker and Alaina Buerger.
It’s the largest “graduating class” in the history of the program. Those six jumpers have grown incredibly close over the years.
“This team is kind of like my family,” said Palombi, who has been on the team since the fourth grade. “It’s going to be like leaving my family behind. The bond I have with my teammates is really special. They know a lot of things about you that others may not know because you spend so much time together.”
In addition to the shows — four of which have involved overnight stays in hotels before performances this season — the team also puts in plenty of practice time with one another. During the season, the team practices together upward of 10 hours per week together.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Bertke, who joined the team last year. “We practice 10 hours a week during the season, then you put in time on your own. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. I’m happy I’m on the team and proud of everything we’ve done.”
Robinson agreed that all the hard work is worth it. She also said it’s taught her things she plans on using for the rest of her life.
“It’s really rewarding when you’ve been working super, super hard on a trick and you finally get it,” said Robinson, who has been on the team since fourth grade. “It makes you feel like you are on top of the world. I’ve learned a lot about teambuilding and how to work with other people. I think those are things that can help you in a job when you get older.”
All six find it hard to believe the season, and their careers, soon will be coming to an end. Hempker and Buerger both have been on the team since the third grade, longer than any of their teammates.
“I get very sad,” Hempker said of the impending close to her career. “For the past six years, all I’ve known is the Pop Rocks; it’s all I’ve done. I’m going to miss the friendships the most. And I love jumping rope. I’m going to miss that. I can jump rope on my own, but it won’t be the same.”
Buerger said she’s not looking forward to the close of her jump rope career.
“It’s going to be really, really weird,” she said. “I’ve been doing this since the third grade, and I’ve had a lot of fun and made a lot of friends. I don’t know that it will ever be like that again.”
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong