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Local twirlers rewarded at Nationals

POSTED: July 26, 2014 12:00 p.m.
Photo Courtesy Tanya Parker/

Star Academy’s youngest, Madison Johnson, stands between teammates Madi Griffith (Left) and Tori Maddox (Right).

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For a first-year program, the Star Academy Twirlers have already made quite a name for themselves in the world of baton twirling.

At the 67th Annual Drum Majorettes of America National Finals outside Charlotte, the Winder-based team captured numerous titles and brought home five champions. The crowning achievement of Star Academy’s performance was Millie Bryant winning the National Beginners title for the 13- and 14-year old age group.

“Millie won the biggie,” Debra Gilstrap, founder and lead coach for the Star Academy Twirlers, said. “She won the biggie.”

En route to winning her title, the young lady also won national beginner twirling title, the strutting championship and the national modeling championship. Bryant also placed fifth in the intermediate show twirl championship competing in the 14- to 18-year old group, along with a fifth place finish in the junior halftime competition. 

“She’s been twirling since she was seven,” Gilstrap explained, adding that Bryant started working under Nicole Jensen who taught her quite a bit. 

Bryant was joined by four teammates from Winder, including Tori Maddox who won the special beginner two-baton championship and placed second in basic for the 15- to 23-year old group. She also finished third in fancy and second in solo. Maddox was the first runner-up for the overall title in her classification and age group.

Maddox also competed in 10th in a beginner and ninth in a solo performance.

Michelle Tilly won the special beginner basic title while placing second in photogenic and third in the solo twirl competition. With all of those national accomplishments to her name, Tilly finished fourth overall for the 15- to 23-year old age group in special beginner. 

Madi Griffith finished first in the basic competition for the 13- to 14-year old special beginner category, along with a fourth-place finish in fancy strut and third in solo.

The youngest competitor from the group, Madison Johnson, finished second in the 0- to 8-year old intermediate show twirl, first in the special beginner two-baton competition for 0- to 10-year old girls, fifth in fancy, third in solo and fourth overall for the beginner classification in her age group.

“We were so blown away by how they did,” Gilstrap beamed. “Madison’s only been twirling since March. That is a hoot.”

The majority of the young women have been twirling since the fall of 2013 under Star Academy and have already tasted success competing at the national level.

“They went in to this. We had a boot camp about a week before we left where I brought in different instructors who critiqued them so they could hear somebody’s voice other than mine,” Gilstrap noted. 

“It was really good just to see what they did. This is unbelievable,” Gilstrap reemphasized, mentioning the team’s early success. “You usually don’t take them the first year, and we took them, and it’s not like they didn’t have competition. Their divisions were huge. It absolutely blew me away.”

In a short time, the young women who compete for Star Academy have already earned a certain level of talent that takes many young women years to earn in just a matter of months.

“They looked like they’ve been doing it for years,” Gilstrap added. “This generation’s hand-eye coordination…I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s all the texting they do. Whatever it is, they’re far above what we could do at their age.”

As strong as the Star Academy young ladies were, Gilstrap did admit there were a few small mistakes that may have cost the individuals points along the way. Even still, for the first year of competition, those mistakes are understandable and easily forgiven.

“They were so green,” Gilstrap said. “Just little things that they’ll know next year, but we started something now that is just going to pick up and move on, so I’m very excited. I’m grateful. I feel like they were blessed.”

Gilstrap used to run a twirling academy in Winder for nearly 20 years, but the previous school closed down in 1993. In fact, some of Gilstrap’s competitors at the 2014 Nationals were second-generation twirlers.

“I’ve had some of these girls’ mamas. I taught them. One or two of the mothers even said, ‘I can’t believe they’re doing this with how long it took me to get a two-turn down.’ It’s amazing the eye-hand coordination that they develop now,” Gilstrap conceded. “Maybe it is their generation. I am just mesmerized by what they’ve done. I’m proud of them.

“It’s not a matter of me having to prod them. They’re self-directed,” Gilstrap added. “They’re making a mark, and it’ll be one that this next year’s group is going to have to step up to.”

Now, these young women have a chance to start something great that could last beyond them and could impact other young men and women in the near future.

Despite the future implications of what the team did at the national finals this past week, Gilstrap is still focused on celebrating what her young women accomplished for themselves.

“What they did was dug deep and pulled out something from themselves, and you can’t ask any more than that,” Gilstrap added. “I was sitting there with my chest stuck and my head was so big I didn’t think I could get out the door. I was in shock. Not because of the fact that they had won…but seeing them rise up and not give in to nerves.

“You would’ve thought that this was something they had been doing for years.”

Aside from athletic competition and achievement, the DMA competitions award scholarship money to some of the winners in order to help them go on and achieve their dreams outside of twirling competitions.

The senior queen for the year was a young woman who used to be a twirler at Georgia Southern and who is from Georgia.

“We were very pleased that Georgia was represented in that because it’s a national thing,” Gilstrap mentioned. 

This year’s queen will use her share of the more than $20,000 in scholarship money to help pay for medical school where she plans on studying oncology. 

“There’s college scholarships for these twirlers. A lot of people don’t know that,” Gilstrap emphasized. “It’s scholarship money, and in this day and time, you want scholarship money.”

Whether the young women of the Star Academy Twirlers win scholarship money someday down the road or not, they will always carry the memory of competing and succeeding in a national competition with them for the rest of their lives. 

As for Gilstrap, she is going to hold on to her pride for these young women’s accomplishments just as long.

“There’s not a word in my vocabulary…that could cover the emotion that I have for these kids right now,” Gilstrap said. “I want to pick’em up and hug’em and kiss them all over their faces. I will never be able to relay how much pride I feel in what they did, and they did it for themselves.

“That’s what’s important.”



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