COLUMBIA — Simone Esters was just 13 when she stood on a podium in Switzerland with her hand over her heart and a medal around her neck.
She and her duet partner had perfectly executed a triple illusion during their routine at the 2012 World Twirling Championships, the only ones in their age group to do so and helping them clinch the gold.
The “Star Spangled Banner” began to play, and just then, Esters knew that all her hard work had paid off.
Four years later, Esters has become the new feature twirler for Marching Mizzou, yet another title to add to her collection. For the 2016 season, she’ll twirl with the band and her fellow twirler, sophomore Lindsey McCormick, until they audition again next year.
An MU freshman from Hermitage, Pennsylvania, Esters has racked up numerous awards in the years since she first represented her country, including Junior Miss Majorette of America, Junior Grand National Solo Champion and various other medals at the following World Championships.
“She’s my poster kid for winning,” said Stacey Emch, Esters’ twirling coach at home.
Since MU does not have a designated twirling coach, Emch continues to help Esters craft her routines from afar. The band director gives Esters a set list, and the two pull from previous routines and adapt the moves to fit the music.
“You really have to be very well-rounded in twirling,” Emch said. “In the competitive world, you need to be a good athlete, you need to be a good gymnast, you need to be a good dancer, you need to be a good twirler.”
More than merely tossing a rod into the air, baton twirling is the synthesis of a range of sports and skills including gymnastics and dance. It also requires balance, flexibility, coordination and fitness.
Although twirling originated in Eastern Europe and Asia, it didn’t make its way to the United States until after the Civil War. According to the World Baton Twirling Federation, Maj. Reuben Webster Millsaps of the Confederate Army founded Millsaps College in Mississippi, where he reportedly introduced what is now considered modern baton twirling to the students.
According to Emch, twirling reached its peak for female collegians during the 1960s when few athletic options existed for women. After Title IX passed in 1972, which enabled women to play any sport of their choosing, the number of baton twirlers dropped off.
Now, it is often considered either antiquated or simply recreational, but the sport is complex, difficult and demanding.
“It doesn’t get the respect it deserves,” Julie Fornadel, Esters’ mother, said.
To audition to become one of Marching Mizzou’s feature twirlers is a rigorous undertaking and only two are elected each year. It requires three letters of recommendation, a 250-word essay and video showing skills, plus a live choreographed routine.
Twirlers must execute the routine to the school songs, “Every True Son” and “True Tiger,” with required and suggested tricks specified by the band director. Prospective twirlers must also perform two- and three-baton routines to a song of their choice with other required and suggested tricks.
In hopes of filling the spot vacated by twirler Halie Hart, who graduated in May, Esters came to MU in April to try out. She was offered the position. In a casual conversation alongside McCormick, former band director Dr. Brad Snow officially offered Esters the position.
As for how she felt, “it was excitement and relief together because I was like I can finally just relax and say I achieved my goals,” Esters said.
Esters began twirling at the age of 6 after a teacher at her afterschool program saw potential. She was 9 when she decided it was her passion.
From second grade until junior year of high school, Fornadel estimates her daughter spent five hours practicing every day after school—two to three hours of dance or twirling lessons and then another couple hours practicing at the gym. Having to pass up play date invitations and finish homework assignments in the car was just part of the routine for the budding twirler.
“At that point in time, I hated it,” Esters said. “But looking back on it, I’m really glad my childhood was the way it was because now I feel so much more prepared for other things in life.”
Her mother, a former college basketball player for the University of Pittsburgh, knew the importance of commitment to athletics and was quick to help Esters achieve her goals. As soon as Esters decided to twirl competitively, Fornadel made it a point to attend her daughter’s twirling lessons, videotaping and taking notes at each one.
“She would just really try to make me the best I could be,” Esters said.
Fornadel is a single mom and Esters is an only child, making them exceptionally close.
“It’s always just been me and her,” Esters said. “I want to be like her when I’m older. And it’s so funny because now we are like turning into the same person.”
And twirling has only strengthened their bond.
“We’re a lot closer than most…just because the sport has enabled us to spend a lot of time together,” Fornadel said.
Now, even from four states away, Fornadel continues to do her part for Esters.
Esters says her mother has been working nonstop for the past few months to help design and create each of her game day costumes, drawing inspiration from homecoming and prom dresses she finds on the Internet. Fornadel meticulously affixes each rhinestone one by one onto Esters’ glamorous getups.
“I always try to find something that would set her apart from everybody else,” Fornadel said.
She also flies to Columbia for each home game to watch her daughter perform. Fornadel makes the trek each week because to her, Esters twirling for Missouri is the “icing on the cake” for all of their hard work and dedication.
“I never even thought twice about it,” Fornadel said. “I want to be there and experience this with her.”
More than Peru, more than Switzerland, Columbia on a game day is where Esters wants to be, twirling for the Tigers.
“I’ve competed all over the world, done all kinds of stuff, but nothing compares to that,” Esters said.