Sixteen-year-old Lauren Sykes, of Nolensville, has been twirling for seven years and now she’s earned the “huge” opportunity to show off her skills at a halftime performance during a University of Tennessee football game on September 17.
The Nolensville High School student began competing in the sport just around three years ago, and like all things, the ability to compete and practice has been hampered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In June, Sykes was one of more than 100 athletes who attended a camp at UT in Knoxville where she was nominated with 23 other people to try out for the opportunity and was one of 10 people who earned a spot.
Sykes said that her interest in the sports stemmed from her previous experience in gymnastics.
“When I was really young, I was super into competitive gymnastics and it got to be so much that I had to basically quit or become homeschooled, and I wanted to do other things and I really wanted to try other sports,” Sykes said. “So I quit in like fourth grade, which sounds really young, but at the time was committing like 16 hours a week to it.”
Several years ago, Sykes met her twirling coach April Duncan who owns Top Edge Baton in Nolensville. Duncan shares her experience and knowledge from the sport, which includes her three years performing as a Tiger Twirler at Clemson University, with Sykes and students across the region.
Sykes practices daily, twirling, spinning, throwing and catching the lightweight aluminum baton that’s capped on each end with rubber knobs, and while it isn’t heavy, Sykes warned that when it comes down on her head instead of in her hands, it can feel deceiving.
“It can be somewhat humbling when you first start doing high tricks and stuff when it just hits your head over and over again,” Sykes said with a laugh.
“It makes me feel kind of like a ninja,” she said. “And I find that attractive to the sport, and then just the way the baton can move so quickly. It's like weaponized elegance.”
The sport has plenty of physical challenges such as relying on the athlete’s flexibility, strength, stamina and hand-eye coordination and mental challenges such as good-ole fashioned stress, but Sykes’ passion and hard work is paying off in a sport that is relatively small. Though, Sykes is helping to lead a student twirling club at NHS this upcoming school year.
“She loves competing, and this incorporates dance and gymnastics underneath a metal stick,” Duncan said. “We can use pretty much everything from her background, but it becomes more difficult when you're trying to do it underneath something in the air and then do it and before it hits the ground. Not everybody can do this, it looks so much easier than it actually is.”
“We are so proud of Lauren,” Sykes mother, Elizabeth said. “I was in the [UT] Pride of the Southland Marching Band 30 years ago this fall. My college roommate (who was also in the band) and I will be cheering for her from the stands.”
Sykes said that she’s been to UT’s Neyland Stadium one before when she sat in the nosebleed section, but now she’ll be center-field when the UT Volunteers face off against the Akron Zips at 6 p.m. Central on Saturday, Sept. 17. For those not present in Knoxville, they can cheer on Sykes from home when the game is broadcast live on ESPN+.