Florida baton twirlers hope for recognition as athletes

For years, the debate has been whether cheerleaders and figure skaters should be considered athletes. The world of sports finally budged and gave them the title. Florida baton twirlers hope for the same recognition.

“You train every single day. You have coaches and you have training camps,” Jennifer Marcus said before taking part in the state baton twirling championships Saturday in Celebration. “It’s a sport and it is a performing art.”

Marcus, 26, trains for at least three hours a day. The Baldwin Park woman said it’s difficult to find a gym that will let her practice. Marcus, who twirls for the Orland Magic at games, often trains at the RDV Sportsplex Athletic Club between the basketball team’s practices.

Twirlers say it’s demanding on the body to toss a metal rod roughly 40 feet in the air and whip their bodies around fast enough to catch the baton before it hits the ground. They also lunge, spin and roll their bodies to perform basic baton twirling tricks.

“It takes a lot of years of training to do the basic stuff. It looks a lot easier than it is,” Deric Vest, 23, of Orlando, said. Vest, one of the few men at Saturday’s competition, said twirlers often risk injuries, as with any other sport. A friend dislocated his knee and couldn’t compete, Vest added.

Marcus is a member of the Team USA, which will compete in August at the World Baton Twirling Championships in Norway. She has to raise money to help her cover costs for the Norway trip, but that will be no easy task.

“Our sport is not recognized by a whole lot of people. It’s difficult to get sponsorship, especially in this economy,” she said.

Marcus, a Miami native, has been called the “Michelle Kwan of baton twirling.” She’s won dozens of medals from national and world championships since she joined the sport at 3.

The world championship is the highest honor, said Tessah Ceballos, treasurer of the Florida council of the United States Twirling Association. She said, “it’s our Olympics.”

The sport, which started as a male-only sport, draws thousands of people throughout the U.S., said Amy Trujillo, president of the state baton council.

Trujillo was a competitive baton twirler for many years and she now coaches a team from Jacksonville, which competed in the state championships. She said not much as change since her twirling days when it comes to being respected as an athlete.

Baton twirling is not easy to classify, said Steve Smith, whose 5-year-old, Autumn, performed on a Miami team. “It depends,” he says, “Maybe it’s an art.” Smith said, however, the group competitions are a sport because the kids are working as a team.

Marcus travels around the world to teach athletes better techniques and new tricks, including her specialty — twirling up to three batons at a time. She said several countries, including Japan, treat baton twirlers like athletes.

“Twirling is part of their physical education at school,” she said.

But people in the U.S. are coming around, said Ceballos, who competed in 1984. She now coaches dozens of twirlers in Osceola County. A handful of her students were among the roughly 160 twirlers who attempted to demonstrate their athleticism and sportsmanship at the Celebration event. The athletes are preparing for regional and national competition coming up in June and July.

Ceballos often asks dads to toss a baton to see how difficult the sport is.

And social media has drawn more attention to the sport. Marcus, who signed a few autographs on Saturday, also has her own Web site and blog.

“YouTube has been a huge help. They can see what the elite levels actually do,” Ceballos said.