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Wednesday, June 19
The Indiana Daily Student

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After 25 years, Firecrackers Coach Lynn Kelley contemplates retirement

While the Firecrackers perform during halftime, their coach Lynn Kelley watches from the sideline Saturday at Assembly Hall.

In the front row of the bleachers, the coach surveys her legacy.

Twenty-four athletes, lined before her in rows of four, jump in unison to the beat of a Star Wars medley — or at least, they try. Their colorful, mismatched sneakers don’t quite line up along the gymnasium floor. And with each smack, smack, smack of their beaded ropes against the hardwood, the girls land farther apart.

“It’s early in the season,” Coach Lynn Kelley says. “It’s ugly. It’s supposed to be.”

For two hours a day, six days a week, seven months a year, Kelley holds practice here, inside South Lebanon Elementary School.

It’s where she founded the team 25 years ago. And it’s where she transforms the team, season after season, from a group of third-through-eighth grade girls into the premier performance jump rope group in the nation, whose halftime shows are a beloved tradition for many athletic programs, including IU’s.

“Stop,” Kelley says, halting the girls in the middle of their routine. “Do it again.”

When Kelley decides not to do it again — that this is the end — it will be the end of the Firecrackers as we know them, too.

***

It’s a far cry from double-dutch and nursery rhymes in the school yard.

Kelley’s Firecrackers have turned the children’s game of jump rope into a globally acclaimed act, having performed everywhere from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to “Late Night with David Letterman,” to George W. Bush’s Presidential 
Inauguration.

Videos of those performances have amassed 27 million online hits in more than 90 countries, attracting the attention of director Joseph Greco, who has a Firecrackers movie in the works.

But how does Kelley prepare 9-, 10-, 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds, some of whom had never picked up a jump rope until their Firecrackers audition, to perform in front of 20,000-plus spectators?

Repetitions. It takes about 50,000, Kelley estimates, to get her team performance-ready. The season begins in August, with travel and performances nearly every weekend from December to March.

“Once we hit December, they’ll fly through it,” Kelley says. “I’ll have to speed the music up.”

To make the show, which is broken up into five sections, the girls have to perform the section flawlessly before their peers 10 times in a row. If they get it nine times and mess up on the 10th, they start again from zero.

The girls line up horizontally across the gymnasium floor. Two of the eighth graders, Anna and Emily, grab opposite handles of two jump ropes and weave them down the line for their teammates to clear.

Kelley appraises it all with keen eyes. Her demeanor is warm and matronly, yet stern when the situation calls. She’s never demanding of the girls or their parents — she doesn’t need to be. She’s someone you don’t want to disappoint.

Halfway down the formation, a girl gets her leg caught.

“Again,” Kelley says.

***

At 63, Kelley has spent more than a third of her life devoted to the 
Firecrackers.

She was born and raised in Mason, Ohio , one town over from South Lebanon, where the Firecrackers practice. The only time she left the county for an extended time was to compete for the synchronized swim team at Miami University, 40 minutes away.

She returned after graduation and married her Mason-High-School sweetheart, whom she has known since second grade.

“When we grew up here, it was the best place in the country to grow up,” Kelley said of the Appalachian town. “It was Mayberry 
reincarnated.”

The Firecrackers started out of Kelley’s physical education class in the Kings Local School District, where she taught for 32 years.

At the prodding of her husband, Kelley inquired with the district about getting a group of her students to perform their end-of-the-year showcase — a choreographed jump rope routine — during halftime of a local basketball game.

They gave her a junior high girls’ game. Kelley’s students received a standing ovation from the crowd of five.

At the time, it seemed to Kelley as if everything was happening by accident. Crowds of five became 50. Fifty became 100. Hundreds, thousands, all way up to the 23,500 of the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena — the largest venue the Firecrackers perform at, and the fourth-largest basketball arena in the world.

This season, the Wildcats will send their team bus to pick up the Firecrackers. The bus is a 36-seater, complete with eight beds and four big-screen TVs.

It’s the girls’ favorite part of the season, agreed eighth grade captains Anna Powell, Emily Schowalter, Danielle Page and Alexa Cittadino — a chance to spend the two-hour bus ride in the company of their closest friends.

Ask any of this year’s Firecrackers, and they’ll tell you the same. They love sharing time in the gym every day with their teammates — girls, because of the age difference, they might not see anywhere else.

They don’t yet realize the full value of Kelley’s program — how could they, says assistant coach 
Allie Cory — but they will. Cory knows firsthand.

***

The Firecrackers live by axioms: “You will perform like you practice,” “Excellence is a habit,” “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”

“Be the reason someone smiles today” is printed on the backs of the girls’ practice shirts — identical sets, enough for a week of practice — so they never forget the reason they perform.

No one embodies another axiom, “Once a Firecracker, always a Firecracker,” better than Cory.

A Firecracker in the team’s heyday, when the girls were first invited to perform on “Letterman” and in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Cory said Kelley’s tutelage helped her break out of the shell of a shy, introverted girl and discover her love for entertaining.

After her final season, Cory returned to Firecrackers practice to volunteer as a high school cheerleader, as an IU student and, now, as a kindergarten teacher at Kings Mills Elementary.

“It’s all due to the fact of everything that Lynn Kelley has done for me,” Cory said. “She’s provided me with so many wonderful opportunities. She’s been so supportive of me all through my growing up. The program that she’s created from scratch develops beautiful, young, talented women that are motivated.

“I just don’t want to see that ever go away.”

***

For Kelley, teaching and coaching is more than just a job. It is her 
calling.

Long before Firecrackers, Kelley had a knack for noticing students, like Cory, who fell in the middle of the pack.

Not drawing as much attention to themselves as the high-achievers or troublemakers, these students, Kelley feared, were being overlooked. So she began mailing them letters, a couple a week, as often as she could.

“You’re such a great influence on the other students,” a letter might read. Or, “I’m looking forward to your future accomplishments.” It wasn’t just the encouragements the envelope contained, but the mere act of receiving it that bolstered a student’s confidence and made them feel special.

Finding a talent had a similar 
effect.

“You could just see a kid change overnight when they were good at something and felt they were good at something,” Kelley said. “You could see the confidence it gave them, even if it was something as little as jump rope.”

So she continued to write letters throughout her career, just as she has continued to coach the Firecrackers after 2011, when she retired from teaching.

But it wasn’t until years after writing one of those letters, when she encountered one of her former students at an ice cream parlor, that Kelley realized just how big a difference her actions had made.

“Mrs. Kelley,” the student said, pulling out a piece of folded paper — so worn it was almost falling apart — from his wallet. “I want you to know that there has not been a day that I’ve been on this earth since you sent me this letter that I have not opened the letter and read it.”

“If I could go back in time, I’d write every kid a letter five times a week,” Kelley said. “I didn’t do it nearly as much as I should.”

Such is the essence of Kelley’s career: working tirelessly, yet, in her eyes, never enough.

But after 25 years, Kelley has started to think about a life after 
Firecrackers.

***

“It’s certainly never been about the money,” Kelley says. “If it was, I would have quit a long time ago.”

All in all, the coach estimates that she loses $4,000 to $5,000 every season. Though she is paid $3,000 a year by the school district, that salary doesn’t even cover her gas and travel expenses.

What’s more, the Firecrackers are a nonprofit organization, and it’s the venues, not Kelley, that decide what a performance is worth — even if that amount is $0. This season, one university will pay $2,500 for a 
Firecracker halftime show. Another, 
just $100.

Meanwhile, Kelley has given back to the school district and surrounding community in 
immeasurable ways.

In addition to the Firecrackers, she founded a track team, the Flying Knights, and raised enough money to put a new track in South Lebanon Elementary School. With the help of the school guidance counselor, she spearheaded a decades-long initiative to provide for families in need during the holidays.

After being shocked by the lack of manners on her first team, Kelley began requiring all Firecrackers to attend an etiquette course, where every season the girls learn how to look people in the eye, how to enter a room, how to sit nicely, how to introduce people, how to shake hands firmly, how to converse politely and how to properly eat a five-course meal.

Years after Kelley introduced the etiquette course in Firecrackers, she convinced school board to implement it into its fourth grade curriculum.

“If everyone had good etiquette, we wouldn’t have any problems,” she said.

The South Lebanon Historical Society recognizes the Firecrackers as a part of the town’s culture and 
history.

They plan to put up a marker in the South Lebanon Elementary gym, honoring where the team first started.

“I think even some of the best coaches in the whole world — your Coach Krzyzewskis, your big-time coaches — can learn a lot from Coach Kelley,” Shaun Hamilton, another assistant coach, said. “There’s much more to being a coach than the X’s and O’s, and she’s mastered that for many years.”

***

At the end of practice, the girls stand against the back wall of the gymnasium. “Footloose” plays on loop over the loudspeakers.

“Come out anytime you want and show us what you can do,” Kelley calls out. “I need tummy jumps, double rumps, tunnels, back bends, leap frogs, under the legs.”

The Firecrackers step out to center floor and show Kelley the stunts they’ve been working on while she takes notes on a white legal pad.

Afterwards, they come up to hug her, one-by-one, and thank her for practice.

“Thank you for working so hard,” she says.

Long after the girls have left, Kelley is still sitting in the bleachers. When she speaks, her eyes, so blue they hint of artificial color, never break contact.

She speaks loudly and clearly, as she has learned, no doubt, from years of etiquette lessons. On the opposite end of the gym, the motion sensor lights begin to dim.

“This may be my last year,” she says. She’s been saying that for the last six or seven.

She would have retired from Firecrackers when she stopped teaching, she explains, had it not been for the movie. The company that bought the rights has been sitting on them for two years, waiting for the right production partner.

So Kelley, on the advice of her entertainment attorney, has postponed retirement — that way, there will be a team up and running if and when, the movie is released.

Kelley has grandchildren now, a girl and four boys, with another on the way. She’d like to spend more time with them, if she ever could.

As she talks about her family, about her former students, about the Firecrackers and the long season ahead, the gym continues to darken as the motion sensor lights go out.

The only light that stays on is the one above Kelley’s place in the bleachers.

***

It’s the end of January now, halftime of the IU men’s basketball game against Minnesota. A packed Assembly Hall erupts as public address announcer Chuck Crabb introduces the Firecrackers.

His introduction is lost to the deafening cheers of the crowd. It’s the loudest they’ve been all game.

The team that takes the court might as well be different than the one practicing at South Lebanon Elementary in September. The routine has evolved: elevated choreography, some gymnastics components and a crowd favorite, the human jump rope.

There’s an element of danger to it, Kelley says, like riding a roller coaster.

By the time the final notes of Hairspray’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat” have faded, all of Assembly Hall is on 
its feet.

Down the stadium halls, security guards and food service staff give a standing 
ovation.

The Firecrackers have brought down the house.

From Belmont University to the University of Cincinnati, audiences have been more emphatic in response to this routine than any other Kelley can remember in her 25 years.

Maybe she’ll retire at the end of this season, maybe she won’t. If she does, she picked a good season to be her last. Because the team’s toughest critics, former Firecrackers, have confirmed what Kelley said she feels in her heart of hearts.

“It’s the best show ever in Firecracker history,” she says.

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