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Sixteen years ago, someone left a baton on the floor of a multi-purpose room at an elementary school in Anaheim, Calif. A little girl saw it, picked it up and asked her mother if she could play with it.
Her life was never the same again.
The little girl had watched older girls twirl batons at her school that day and been awed by them. The baton one of them left behind was to her what ballet shoes are to a girl born to dance or a fielder’s glove is to a boy bewitched by baseball. She took it home, started practicing and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward 16 years. That “little girl” is 21 now and something of a Boise icon. You may not know her name, but if you attend Boise State University football games, you’ve watched her perform and felt something of the awe she did as a kid watching baton twirlers at her school all those years ago. At BSU’s halftime shows, Marlo Birkmann and the BSU Marching Band light up the field.
Birkmann is the twirler who gets almost everyone’s attention. She throws batons high in the air and does spins and walkovers before catching them. She almost never misses. She’s a twirler, but she could easily be a juggler, keeping multiple batons aloft simultaneously. She spins batons with her neck and shoulders. The crowd watches every move, reacting with cheers, applause and, when she pulls off an especially stunning trick, a collective “wow!”
“She’s a twirler times four!” BSU fan Randy Baxter said from his seat on the 30-yard line at the BSU-Virginia game.
A reference to a routine in which Birkmann juggles four spinning batons in the air at once.
“She’s a fantastic twirler!” fan Lynn Jensen added. “She’s mesmerizing to watch. So fluid and graceful.”
What does it take to go from being a kid playing with a baton to mesmerizing people at a major college game?
“It became my life,” Birkmann said of her initial exposure to the baton. “Once I picked it up, I just dove into it. I never experienced soccer or softball or other sports kids do at that age. I just loved the baton so much.”
She started practicing with a team when she was five and, “by the time I was six or seven I was getting better and needed better teachers. Mom and I found a coach, and that coach pushed me hard to practice every day.”
That’s when it became obvious how much she loved the baton. She practiced two hours every weekday – eight hours a day on Saturdays and Sundays. NFL teams don’t practice that much.
Football players aren’t the only ones who get hurt on the field. A spinning baton may not be lethal, but it packs a punch if it hits you.
“If you want to get better, you have be more daring and take more risks,” Birkmann said. “I’ve sprained my thumb three times. I’ve been hit in face and head, broken almost all my toes, my pinkie, my nose …”
She’s attended hundreds of competitions, including the national championships at Notre Dame University 11 times. She won a national pageant competition when she was only nine.
“I went to competitions almost every weekend when I was growing up. In college, it’s more laid back. It’s easier to impress the fans than it is to impress judges at a competition. At competitions, it’s all about points.”
If you stop during your performance, you lose a point. If you don’t smile enough, have poor form, catch the baton with two hands or, God forbid, drop the baton, you lose points.
Birkmann has performed at as many as four consecutive BSU games without dropping a baton.
“When I do drop it, it’s usually when it’s cold. Your fingers get numb and you can’t catch it as well. … When I do drop it, I hear the crowd go ‘ahhhh.’ I can hear that. I hear the disappointment.”
Dropping a baton may be the worst thing than can go wrong, but it isn’t the only thing. Birkmann has multiple sets of dance shoes. At one game, she accidentally wore the wrong ones.
“I got two different sizes and was wearing one that was too small and one that was too big. One was cutting off my circulation; the other one I slipped out of. But you can’t let things like that stop you. You just have to keep smiling.”
Fans impressed by her performances would be surprised to learn that she doesn’t do her most difficult tricks on the field.
“I do some of my hard tricks, but not all of them. Twirling four at once; that’s a hard trick. I do one called an illusion, where my leg goes over my head; that’s a hard trick. But I don’t do the tricks that require me to practice every day of the week.”
Such as …
“At competitions, I throw the baton in the air and do seven spins before I catch it. On the field, I do three or four. I do tricks that are hard, but not hard enough that I’ll drop the baton. The main goal at the games is to please the crowd.”
The practice it would take to perform her most difficult tricks at games would take time away from studying. Birkmann is attending BSU on scholarships for baton twirling and academics. She has a 3.8 GPA in nursing school.
She came to BSU because, “I wanted to go somewhere where I could be alone on the field and not be part of a team. Baton twirling is very popular in the East and the South; almost every school there has a line of twirlers plus a feature twirler. Twirling isn’t as popular in the West. I wanted to be away from home, but not too far. The schools that offered what I wanted were Oregon State, Arizona State and BSU.”
She chose BSU over the other two “partly because of the blue field and because of better academics and the beauty of Idaho.”
She’s a senior this year, but isn’t quite finished with her studies. Next year she’ll be a “super senior.”
And back on the field again.
“After that I’m done with twirling,” she said. “I know my body can’t take any more. But the opportunity to twirl at a big university has been a huge honor for me because I’ve done this for so long and it’s been my life. Just the fact that I’m out there is so cool. I’m enjoying every moment.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Know someone who would make a good column subject for him? Contact him at email@example.com.