Julee Stewart is quiet and soft spoken until she is armed with a baton and dressed in a glittery leotard. In a video from the world championships in Helsingborg, Sweden, last year, she looks coyly over her shoulder at the audience before launching a baton into the air. It disappears from the camera’s frame while she does one— two— three aerials in as many seconds and catches the metal rod once again.
Stewart, 19, is one of three finalists for Sask Sport’s Youth Female Athlete of the Year, and her group, Regina’s Sundown Optimist Buffalo Gals, is nominated for Team of the Year.
While some will be surprised to see baton twirling represented in the nominations, or to learn that the activity is considered a sport, it’s impossible to deny Stewart’s athleticism.
“(A lot of people) think, ‘Oh, that looks easy. That can’t be that hard,’” Stewart laughs. She says once they’re handed a baton, most naysayers are less confident.
But, given two batons, or even three, Stewart is likely to place first in competitions across North America.
Last month, in Stockton, California, Stewart took home four gold medals and one silver at the Pan Pacific Cup.
“You need to be fast and you need to have gymnastics and you need to be coordinated, so you need to have all these kinds of elements,” she says. “It takes many years just to get the basics down.”
Stewart’s twirling career started when her eight-year-old self saw a baton performance and asked her parents if she could join. Stewart entered her first Canadian championships when she was just nine years old.
Every week, Stewart dedicates as many as 23 hours to her sport. For three of seven days, she practices jazz, ballet and acrobatics. Her weekend is spent in a gym, conditioning, and six days a week, she is practicing baton individually or with teammates.
She also spends two days a week assisting youth baton classes at Martin School of Dance and Baton, where her own career started years ago.
The training schedule means she has to carefully plan her time for studies as a pre-veterinarian medical student at the University of Regina. Stewart takes three classes a semester and will transfer to the University of Saskatchewan to complete her degree after two more years. While becoming a vet has always been her dream, she plans to continue baton for as along as she can.
Stewart was nominated for consideration by the Saskatchewan Baton Twirling Association. That twirling is being recognized provincially is wonderful, Theresa Porter, SBTA chair, says, especially given the misconceptions that exist.
“(Baton twirling) is not majorettes and marching— It’s agility. There’s gymnastics, there’s hand-eye coordination of a football player,” says Porter.
“(People) see it on TV on a football field and it’s more of the marching— and there’s marching when they’re little— but it’s not marching when you’re Julee’s age.”
The Saskatchewan Sport Awards celebrates the achievements of amateur athletes, coaches, teams and officials in the province each year. Finalists are selected through a voting process by Sask Sport organizations and affiliates.
The other Youth Female Athlete of the Year finalists are Saskatoon swimmer Samantha Ryan and Moose Jaw speed skater Gabrielle Sanson.
Awards for each of the categories will be presented on March 23 at the Saskatchewan Sport Awards ceremony in Saskatoon.
According to Stewart’s coach and director of the Buffalo Gals, Maureen Johnson, a Sask Sport Athlete of the Year Award has not been given to a baton-twirling athlete since the 1990s.
That she is one of this year’s nominations has not been lost on Stewart.
“It’s pretty exciting. I would never have expected that or anything, really, it’s crazy actually.”
*An earlier edition of this article said Stewart assists classes at Martin Collegiate, rather than Martin School of Dance and Baton.