Samantha Ashton sprawls on the floor of the City Auditorium like a piece of lycra-clad Silly Putty. Her warm-up stretches are quick and graceful, which makes the sound of her cracking knuckles all the more alarming.
For 16-year old Ashton it's just another afternoon practice session for a sport she's devoted most of her life to: one that might just have a future but doesn't have much of a present.
Quick: Name a famous baton twirler?
The City Auditorium is one of the few spaces Ashton has found to practice since moving to the Springs from Orange County, Calif. a year ago. Her complex tosses require a 36-foot ceiling, higher than your average high school gym.
While baton twirling occupies a place in the American imagination somewhere between a college football halftime show and beauty show gimmickry, Ashton says her sport is creeping toward legitimacy. "It's trying to eliminate the beauty pageant element," Ashton says.
Currently, the United States Twirling Association, one of the top national twirling bodies, is working with the NCAA to get the sport recognized as a club-level competition.
Of course it's hard to imagine twirling as marginal when you consider Ashton's travel schedule. While most girls her age drive from school events to the mall, Ashton flies to and from team practices in Sacramento, her personal coach in Kansas City and competitions in Florida, Texas and beyond.
Ashton's current focus is next month's trials in Sacramento, where she'll compete for one of six coveted spots on the USTA's world squad which will compete internationally in Osaka, Japan, this August.
Twirling competitively since age six, Ashton says it bothers her that her sport doesn't get the level of respect and attention it deserves. But when it comes to facing the fact that her career could terminate before she can drink legally, she says she prefers not to think about it. "I'm just focused on April and getting through the world trials."
-- John Dicker
photo by Sean Cayton