They are world champion twirlers, “punk-rock” fencers and classic, hardworking ruggers.
They are athletes, some of the most accomplished in the area, putting in hours of practice and dedicating themselves to perfection.
And yet, in their own backyard, they go about their business mostly unnoticed. They do not play the sports you know, the sports you read about on a daily basis, the sports you learned as a kid.
Instead, they have taken the road less traveled — called to games that offer thrills and heated competition, but not always much attention.
Baseball, basketball, football?
Try baton twirling, fencing and rugby.
On Friday, the Summer Olympics will begin in London, an event colored by obscure and overlooked endeavors. For a couple of fleeting weeks, these sports and their athletes will occupy the limelight on a global stage. Back in Johnson County, a community of kids will also continue to dream of the next goal. These kids will head to the gym, to the athletic club, to the pitch. They’ll put on unfamiliar garb, take unfamiliar positions, and continue to play.
Savannah Miller documents her sacrifice in a little notebook. It’s a record of her dedication, a reminder of all the hours she’s spent in the gym.
Miller, 15, is one of the best baton twirlers in the world for her age group. And she has the championships to prove it. You might be surprised to learn that there is such a thing as the world twirling championships.
But, then again, Miller has seen the perplexed faces before.
“Sometimes, when I tell people I’m a baton twirler, they don’t even know what baton twirling is,” says Miller, who’ll be a sophomore this fall at St. Thomas Aquinas High School. “So it’s kind of hard to explain to them how much I love the sport and how cool it can be.
“It’s so unique and different from the normal sports that everybody plays today.”
Forget about that old baton you saw in your grandmother’s basement. This is a sport Miller began when she was 3, a little girl beginning lessons at Heidi’s Dance Center in Riverside, Mo. Heidi Jacobson, the dance instructor, had been a feature twirler in college, and she always put a baton in the hands of her young dancers. The first time she did so with Miller, little Savannah threw a fit.
Eventually, Miller calmed down. And she and the baton became inseparable.
“Ever since then,” says her mother, Sammie Miller, “she’s had a baton in her hands.”
These days, Miller’s list of accomplishments is long: This year alone, she was crowned the 2012 World Twirling Champion in Solo 1-baton, Solo 2-baton and rhythmic baton in Switzerland. That came three years after she claimed world championships in Solo 2-baton and rhythmic in Belgium. In addition, Miller was selected Miss Majorette of America in the junior division in 2011, and she’s won the Grand National Twirling Championships the last four years.
“She has an amazing muscle memory,” Jacobson says.
“It comes from the heart, first of all,” her mother Sammie says.
Miller’s success notwithstanding, Jacobson says baton twirling is rare in the Kansas City area. The decline, she says, began many years ago, when college band directors started turning away from feature twirlers. That left twirlers with little to do — other than compete — and the numbers dwindled.
These days, more college bands are going back to using twirlers, and it’s likely that Miller will one day lead a major collegiate marching band onto the field. That’s the plan, says Miller, who has already performed with the St. Thomas Aquinas band.
But she has other goals, too. She’s thinking about becoming a neurosurgeon. And perhaps she could stay involved with twirling by becoming in a competition judge.
But first things first. Another major competition awaits, this one in Paris at the end of the month. That means more weeks of two- or three-hour practices every day. More weeks of keeping up the notebook.
“I love getting to meet all new types of people,” Miller said. “When I travel to a world competition, I get to meet people from different countries, and it’s so exciting to meet friends all around the world.”
Doug Crockett tells a story about how his son, Joe, once quit fencing. Joe was 11 or 12 at the time, and all of his friends were playing football.
That sounded like a pretty fun idea. So Joe played football, too.
The only problem, Doug says, is that Joe never really lost his love for fencing. He’d been doing it since he was 8 — ever since his older brother went to a fencing camp and came home telling Doug that Joe had to try it.
He’d been competitive, too, on the national and local level, and the whole family had begun to get involved. Doug had started going to the local fencing club, too. And that led to an easy solution.
“So I just kept saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to the club,’ ” Doug says, “And he’d say: ‘Hey wait up, I’ll come with you.’ ”
All these years later, it appears to have been a solid decision. Earlier this year, Joe, a high school student at Shawnee Mission North, won a Division II gold medal in sabre fencing at a North American Cup competition in Cincinnati.
“It was really surreal,” Joe says.
And his dad has taken over management of the Fencing Athletic Club of Kansas City. Doug Crockett’s club specializes in sabre fencing, and the club’s coach, Christopher Slaughter, grew up fencing in Kansas City, dreaming of the Olympics.
Slaughter once studied under Vladimir Nazlymov, a Soviet legend who moved to Kansas City and became the unofficial grandfather of the local fencing scene.
Slaughter’s Olympic quest would fizzle, and Nazlymov is now the head coach at Ohio State, but Slaughter says you can still feel his influence.
“When he first came to Kansas City,” Slaughter says, “there was nothing here.”
It can still be a struggle to attract Midwestern kids to the fencing club. (By Doug’s estimation, there are probably only a couple hundred fencers in the entire Kansas City area.)
Mostly, Slaughter says, that’s because kids simply have no idea what fencing is. That’s why this year’s Olympics is so important. The United States is particularly stacked in fencing talent at the moment, and more success in London would be a positive for the sport.
Mariel Zagunis, the two-time defending champion in women’s sabre, once said that sabre fencers — those who compete in the most intense style of fencing — are the “punk-rockers” of fencing. Doug Crockett likes to mention that quote.
“Nowadays,” Slaughter says, “because (kids are) really wanting something different, outside of the basic three, football, baseball and basketball, it’s a very growing sport here.”
For now, Doug Crockett and Slaughter hope to continue to send area fencers to big-time college programs. One catch, Doug says, is that the schools with scholarship fencing programs are generally very prestigious academically. That means that fencers with scholarship aspirations need to couple their athletic success with academic achievement.
That includes Joe, who has a goal of fencing at the Air Force Academy, an NCAA Division 1 program.
“Ever since I was really little,” Joe says, “it’s been my goal.”
Will Ben Sims had heard all the labels and stories about rugby. It was a foreign sport, played in places like South Africa and England and New Zealand.
“I thought it was football without pads,” Sims said. “That’s what everybody said.”
Three years later, after taking up the sport following his freshman year at Rockhurst High School, Sims can’t get enough of it. He gives up his springs to play for the Kansas City Jr. Blues, a now-20-year-old club team in the area, and spends part of his summer practicing with the senior team.
Yes, rugby is physical and demanding. And, yes, there’s tackling. But this sport, Sims says, is so much more than pad-less football.
“Now it’s my sport,” says Sims, who lives in Leawood.
There’s just something about rugby, Sims says, something about the feeling of being on a pitch, or field, with 14 other players — rugby union, the tradition style of the sport, is played with 15 to a side — and working toward a common goal. The rudimentary explanation of rugby: Both sides attempt to score tries — five points — while moving the oval-shaped ball up and down the pitch with kicks and backward passes.
When he first started playing the sport, Sims says it took him about a month to feel comfortable on the field. Unlike basketball, football or baseball — sports that are ingrained in the American consciousness — most kids don’t grow up watching rugby.
That makes learning the game a little different. Not only do you have to acquire the skills and mechanics of the sports, you also have to learn the rules.
“I try and learn something new every time I play a game,” Sims says.
During Sims’ time in the program, the Jr. Blues have continued their success at the national level, finishing fourth at the 2011 high school Rugby National Championships. The program also finished third in the same competition in 2009.
Those performances came on the heels of a decade-long spike in interest in the Kansas City area, according to Jr. Blues head coach Eddie Cummings.
“I think the sport has nearly doubled in size in the United States,” Cummings says.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that the Jr. Blues won’t continue to beat the drum for their sport. The Jr. Blues have kids from both sides of the state line — many, like Sims, come from Rockhurst — but high school programs in Johnson County have grown as well.
Cummings says he often has to compete with high school football coaches who worry that their players will injure themselves. The main rugby season takes place in the spring, meaning it doesn’t conflict with high school football, but high school football players are often encouraged to spend their spring in the weight room.
One of those kids was Kyle Murphy, an Olathe native who waited until his Rockhurst football career was over before taking to the rugby pitch. In one season, Murphy was hooked. Now, he’ll continue to play club rugby this fall when he begins college at Texas Christian University.
This is, perhaps, another advantage. Because rugby doesn’t require loads of equipment, Murphy says, athletes can continue to play rugby at a recreational or club level. Consider: There aren’t that many recreational or club football leagues for 20-somethings.
But there are for ruggers.
“You can continue to play,” Murphy says, “But you don’t have that same feeling of playing in front of a full stadium of people.”
It’s likely that rugby will continue to see increased exposure during the next four years. Rugby sevens — a sleeker, faster version of rugby with seven players to a side — will make its Olympic debut at the 2016 Summer Games.
“It’s starting to really gain popularity,” Sims says.
For Sims, that will bring some welcomed attention for his favorite sport. But for now, he says, the grassroots feel of rugby in American can serve to make teammates closer. The boys who choose rugby are doing something different, something unconventional. And that choice can create a bond.
It’s physical, he says. It’s punishing. You have to learn how to watch out for your teammates. And you have to trust that they’ll watch out for you.
“I think I’m a lot closer to my rugby friends,” Sims says.
To reach Rustin Dodd, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/rustindodd.