There is an event that Savannah Miller does not quite remember, though it changed the course of her life. As is common for many little girls, her mother, Sammie, enrolled her in an introductory dance class at the age of three. The instructor was Heidi Jacobson, a former baton twirler for the Kansas City Kings. One day, when Jacobson put a baton in the hands of a tiny Savannah, she did not want to let go of it or leave dance class that day. In fact, the story goes that like any good three year old, Savannah threw an impressive tantrum. Savannah’s first baton twirling memory of her own is of her first competition in Kansas City when she was four.
But amused with the recollection she admits, “I really remember the costume the most.”
Savannah is now 15 years old and a sophomore at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School. She is poised and articulate, with a soft voice and a quick smile. As an honor student with a rigorous academic schedule and as a member of the dance team, Savannah is already a busy teenager. But her passion is twirling, evident as she leads the band with her dazzling routines.
Since she choreographs her own twirling routines for STA, Savannah practices two to three hours every day. She practices in the Aquinas gym whenever she can. Usually that means she is already hard at work before most of her classmates roll out of bed in the mornings. If the gym is not available, Savannah typically practices in the Aquinas parking lot or in the commons of the school before class or after school is dismissed for the day. On weekends and during the summer she practices outside at home or even inside her house from time to time.
Crowds are captivated as Savannah twirls with what seems like ease. The baton seems to dance in her hands, on her shoulders, on her neck and on her elbows. The precision in this sport is astonishing. When Savannah throws her baton high in the air, spins several times, and then catches it behind her back without even looking, crowds roar. A feat that elicits hearty cheers is when Savannah rolls her baton away, proceeds with her complex routine, and with perfect timing the baton, continuously in motion, rolls back to her just at the right moment when she bends down to pick it up, and she finishes her routine with panache. She took on the challenge of learning to twirl special fire batons when she was about eight or nine. Some twirlers use gasoline to light their batons. Savannah uses camp fuel because it does not burn as hot. She says that over the years she has had a few “very slight burns” from working with fire batons, but nothing that has ever amounted to anything more than what she calls a “small sting.”
She is well known throughout the Aquinas community and around Johnson County as the entertaining and very talented baton twirler leading the STA band onto the field. Savannah’s older brother, Trenton, 20, played baseball for Aquinas his senior year. Savannah was in 7th grade at the time and was twirling at one of his games. Sarah Burgess, director of Activities at Aquinas, took notice and approached her about twirling for the Saints.
Savannah began practicing and performing with the high school band when she was in 8th grade. Admiration for Savannah is unmistakable when she comes into view, and not just from Saints’ fans. Burgess recalled that at one of Savannah’s basketball game halftime performances, students from Blue Valley West repeatedly chanted, “Come to West!”
Savannah brushes off the praise. She loves representing her high school in this unique way and she credits her coaches for her training over the years.
Jacobson was her first coach for nine years. Now she has three twirling coaches. The closest one lives in Carthage, Missouri. Another one lives in Ohio, and the third lives in Florida. Savannah spends a lot of time traveling to receive the best twirling coaching available. She has competed with the best of the best around the world. Last April, she competed in Neauchatel, Switzerland near Geneva where she won the World Championship title in her age division. Savannah’s coaches choreograph her competitive routines, and this past summer she spent two weeks with her Florida coach, Karrissa Wimberley, as she prepared for the World Baton Twirling Federation (WBTF) World Championship competition in Paris in early August.
Savannah says, “That one is as close as you can get to the Olympics.” Savannah traveled with her mom to Paris. Her dad, Otis, stayed home with Savannah’s 12-year-old brother, Cannon, to juggle his busy competitive baseball schedule. There are two divisions for the WBTF competition. Savannah is in the Junior Division, which includes ages between 12 and 16. Wimberley was also with Savannah for the Paris competition, even competing herself in the Senior Division. Savannah was one of only three teens selected from the United States to compete in this contest for her age group. The competition eliminates contenders until there are 10 finalists. Then the final round was held on August 5th. Savannah won second place in this fierce competition, a spectacular accomplishment.
Savannah has a lifetime goal of working to make baton twirling an Olympic sport. She believes that it will eventually become part of the Olympics but she is not sure if it will be in time for her to compete in the Olympics herself. She says, “Baton twirling belongs there. I just want to see it in the Olympics eventually.”
Savannah enjoys traveling and is grateful for all of the friends and connections she has made all over the globe through competing. There are not too many people who do this sport so it is fun to get together and compare notes. Savannah explains, “I like to get together and talk about how they prepare for competitions.”
Like any typical teenager, Savannah loves to have free time with kids who share her passion. They hang out, talk and go shopping whenever those rare opportunities materialize.
Since her coaches are far away, Savannah has to rely on herself to keep motivated. She believes that her passion for the sport has led to her self-discipline to make hours of practice a priority. It is just a part of who she is. For right now, baton twirling is considered a unique sport, but Savannah is pleased that lately there has been a renewed interest after a dip in the 1980s and 1990s. After high school she has plans to continue competing, and she hopes that judging performances will be a part of her future as well. She also sees college, medical school and possibly a career in neuroscience down the road. Her immediate goal though is to get kids interested in twirling and for them to begin practicing now. Savannah wants to make sure that there is someone waiting in the wings to take her place at the head of the band at STA when she twirls on to bigger things in 2015. JcL