Niceville High School freshman and majorette Kylee Saltsman won first place in the World Baton Twirling Federation’s Grand Prix Championship and silver and bronze medals in the International Cup in early August in Limoges, France.
NICEVILLE — Judges didn’t hear a baton drop during Kylee Saltsman’s routine.
Even the best competitive twirlers fail to catch their baton a time or two. Kylee's no-drop routine is probably why she tucked a gold medal inside her luggage for the plane ride home.
Kylee won first place for her two-baton routine at the World Baton Twirling Federation’s Grand Prix — and silver and bronze medals in the International Cup — in early August in Limoges, France. She qualified for the events by placing in the top three for her routines at the U.S. National Baton Twirling Championships a year prior.
Kylee was nervous to compete on a world stage, but is a tad more anxious about her next performance venue: the Niceville High School football stadium. As a freshman, this will mark her first year of being on the high school Majorette line with the Niceville High School Eagle Pride band.
“It’s people from school seeing me twirl versus just any random person watching me compete in the stands,” Kylee said. “This is my town. I’ve always had the goal of twirling for (C.W.) Ruckel Middle School and then twirling for Niceville High School. I think it’s really cool I get to do both.”
‘Born to perform’
Kylee was raised with a baton in her hand.
Her mother, Amanda Saltsman, was a twirler, too.
“I was at a Christmas parade with my family in elementary school and saw the all-American girls,” Amanda said. “I begged my mom to sign me up.”
Amanda twirled through middle school, high school and at Florida State University — although never at the level of her daughter, she said. She coaches the girls’ team, The Twinkling Twirlers, in Niceville and has nearly all of Kylee’s life.
“She was always the little baby that tagged along with mom to baton classes, and then started doing it herself,” Amanda said. “It was obvious from a young age that she really had a knack for it. She was born to perform, we would always say.”
Her primary coach, Karrissa Wimberley, agreed Kylee is a naturally gifted performer — funny, too.
Wimberley remembers once training with a young Kylee after a long day of lessons. She went to the bathroom and came back to find Kylee twirling in the empty gym with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” blaring from the speakers.
“She was just making up her own thing with a little mix of Michael Jackson flavor in there — going to town on ‘Thriller,’” Wimberley said. “She has always been a showman. That’s one of the things that helps her in competition is her ability to perform.”
‘A real sport’
Competitive baton twirling isn’t like what people see at the hometown parade.
It’s big tosses, tumbling and dance. Kylee trains daily for various competitions with the Intrepid team throughout the year. She drives to Tallahassee every few weeks to practice with Wimberley, or they train via Facetime.
“There were definitely times it got rough because I joined the team,” Kylee said. “It’s some of the best around the country. It pushed me a lot, but it helped me stick to it.”
Sure, twirling requires coordination and flexibility, Amanda said. Mostly, it’s determination.
“It was a full-time job this summer,” Amanda said. “She trained six to eight hours every day, gearing up for this. You have to have not just the physical ability, but the mental stamina as well.”
Kylee wishes people would take twirling more seriously.
“People should consider it as a real sport,” Kylee said. “A lot of people think of it as a majorette line or just doing little flips, but it’s more than that. It’s a competitive thing like dance, cheerleading or gymnastics.”
“There’s a drastic difference between what you see on a football field and what kids are doing at this level,” Amanda said.
Kylee and her mother were able to steal a glance of the Eiffel Tower, but there was no question about it: Their trip to France was about twirling.
“It’s in that top tier of competitions,” Wimberley said. “It equates to our Olympics.”
Kylee competed with five styles of routines: solo, artistic, pairs, two baton and three baton. She did only one routine two years ago at the same event hosted in Croatia.
She won two medals in the International Cup held Sunday through Thursday. Friday was the Grand Prix, the elite level. Twirlers from Japan typically win.
“Japan has world-renowned the best twirlers,” Amanda said. “They twirl all day every day.”
Kylee had no baton drops in the prelims for her almost two-minute routine. The next day, the top 10 had to re-twirl in reverse order, making her the final competitor. She was the only one who had no drops a second time.
“When I would see people winning this, I was like, ‘That would be so amazing,’ but never really thinking it could be me one day,” Kylee said. “Then when it happened, I was really surprised and excited about everything.”
Wimberley was on the sidelines during the entire routine. Someone filmed a video of her reaction.
“You can see me ducking and diving and trying to help do the routine for her from the side,” Wimberley said. “We think we can help them if we lean just far enough. I was really nervous for her, but she did awesome. We were elated.”
Like at the Olympics, the results were posted and a ceremony was held later. Amanda felt everything at once, she said.
“I was just bawling,” Amanda said. “It was probably 4 a.m. here in the States when we found out. Called her dad, called her grandma, called and woke up everybody, and everybody was just on cloud nine … As a coach and a mom, I know how hard she’s worked — not just that week, not just this summer, but her whole life leading up to it.”
When they returned to the U.S., Niceville High School Majorettes and twirler friends had decorated the yard of their Niceville home with a banner, flags and balloons. Only a few days later, Kylee started high school and went back to tossing her baton in the air in the Crosspoint United Methodist Church gym.
Every day, she drops her baton while practicing. But when her dream was on the line, she didn’t let it hit the ground.
“As long as I don’t think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m at a world competition or any competition; I’m just at the gym,’ I’m always OK,’” Kylee said.
This story originally published to nwfdailynews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.