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THE TWIRL GIRL

Some might balk at calling it a sport, but baton twirlers say it takes coordination, strength and agility to twirl with the best of them.

And like other sports, baton twirling has its hazards.

Getting clonked in the head with the baton, for one.

Just ask Chelsea Russell, 10, of Amherst, a fifth-grader at Mill Middle School.

"I hit myself all the time. I just whack myself, especially on my head. Sometimes it bleeds," she says.

And even when they drop the baton at competition or fall down with judges and dozens of people watching, twirlers have to keep on smiling.

"You have to smile all the time," Chelsea notes. "You have to think about what you're doing, or you might make faces that you won't mean to make."

Chelsea knows what she's talking about when it comes to baton, as a wall of trophies in her living room will attest. This summer she won the Grand National 2-Baton Twirling Championship in the 7-to-9 age category at the National Baton Twirling Championships at the University of Notre Dame. She will represent the United States at world championships in England in April.

At Notre Dame she also qualified for the world team in "strut," a kind of march, and beat 39 competitors to win Miss Majorette of America in her age division. And last month she won the gold medal in free-style baton at the Amateur Athletic Union's National Junior Olympics, the first time baton-twirling was included as a sport.

When it comes to home field advantage, you might say Chelsea has the edge, since her mother, Kelli Krull Russell, is both her coach and a former baton champ. The Russells have a baton studio with a smooth floor and high ceiling at the back of the house, although sometimes Chelsea and her mother's other students practice at the University at Buffalo. "I used to practice in the garage, but that was hard. Or I'd go in the basement," Chelsea said.

She started out with a tiny baton in a group class at age 3, moving on to solo drilling at 5 and two-baton at 7. A couple of months ago she started doing three-baton.

Chelsea practices every day for an hour or so, longer if there's a big competition coming up, and is careful to do stretching exercises first. To help with baton, she studies acrobatics, ballet and jazz dance.

In most competitions, twirlers perform both solos and struts, which are set to marching music. "You get sick of the music fast," Chelsea notes.

Part of the score is "modeling," or appearance, so competitions mean a costume with sequins or rhinestones, a fancy scrunchy on her head, white twirling shoes and makeup, including eye shadow, eyeliner, blush and lipstick. Chelsea is learning to put on her own makeup, but "for big competitions, (Mom) does it."

Chelsea says it's "less trouble" to wear her hair on top of her head. "I would not wear a side ponytail; it could whack me in the eye," she said. Her costumes cost around $75 to have made, though some people spend $200 and more, her mother says.

One of Chelsea's favorite things about traveling to competitions is seeing her twirler friends. The fun makes up for any jitters she gets while performing in front of judges. Her folks always videotape her at competitions. "I watch the video to figure out mistakes," she said.

And she remembers the mistakes. "At AAU (Junior Olympics) I had five drops in each of my solos. At Notre Dame my best was a two-drop."

Points are also deducted if the baton is not in constant motion.

Among the trophies she has won, a favorite is the glass slipper presented to her by Mickey Mouse at Disney World when she was named Miss Twirlmania USA. And she has almost $2,000 in savings bonds acquired through a trophy recycling project that gives a few dollars cash credit for every trophy turned in.

This year Chelsea is getting used to middle school, with lockers and combination locks. She plays viola in the school orchestra, sings in the chorus and enjoys golfing with her dad.

An avid reader, she likes the "Babysitters Club" series although her favorite book is "Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine. She also collects key chains and Beanie Babies.

What does Chelsea like so much about baton?

"I just love doing it. I love to go to competitions. You're competing against you, and how good you can be and how bad you can be. And if you don't do your best at one, you can go on to another one."

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