Tara Harris is a multi-championship-winning baton twirler who can’t see in three dimensions.
Legally blind in her left eye, Harris enrolled in baton twirling lessons at age five to help improve her coordination. But she was much more interested in keeping track of how many other girls showed up for class than actually twirling a baton.
“My mom put me in lessons when I was five,” said Harris, who grew up in Oconomowoc. “I had pretty bad eye-hand coordination and she thought it would help me. But I wasn’t interested in it and was distracted.”
Harris dropped out of lessons shortly thereafter and didn’t return to baton twirling until she was nine.
Now a junior at UW-Madison, the 20-year-old Harris has several championships under her belt and is the current College Miss Majorette of Wisconsin — which involved winning a pageant event involving a solo baton routine, a strut or dance routine as well as a modeling and interview portion.
She was also chosen in 2014 to be a USA baton twirling ambassador and spent two weeks in Peru, Harris said.
Although her relationship with twirling began out of a hope that it would improve her coordination, it wasn’t until recently that Harris realized how difficult it must have been for her younger self to learn baton twirling.
She said she isn’t able to see in three dimensions because her eyes don’t work together. She is currently going through vision therapy to help connect both of her eyes correctly to her brain.
But Harris never really noticed that her vision affected her ability to twirl.
“It’s such a unique skill to build anyway, so I think it’s very difficult for anyone just starting out,” she said. “There are a lot of techniques to toss or do any trick, so I think I had some natural ability which helped me.
“I didn’t notice that I was any worse than anyone else that was just starting out.”
Harris will be participating for the first time in the U.S. National Baton Twirling Championships, sponsored by the United States Twirling Association (USTA), when its 59th annual competition is held in Madison this week.
This competition, which travels all over the country, has been held in Milwaukee six times but never before in Madison.
There are two different twirling organizations — USTA and the National Baton Twirling Association — which hold different competitions, Harris said.
She hasn’t participated in the USTA national championship before, but Harris has placed nationally in the NBTA competitions. Last year she won her two-baton event and received second place in her solo event.
More than 500 participants will compete in the five-day championships held at the Alliant Energy Center from July 10-15.
“These competitors are coming from all over the country,” Anna Osborn Dolan, director of communications for USTA, said. “They range from 32 athletes in the 0-7 division. The youngest (competitor) is probably four. Then they compete through adults in the 21+ division.”
Twirling is still a heavily female-dominated sport — there are only 19 men competing out of the more than 500, Dolan added.
All of the events during the championships are free and open to the public.
Some of the championship competitors are also members of Team USA, which will travel to Croatia in August to represent the United States in the World Baton Twirling Federation’s International Cup and Grand Prix.
While Dolan sees all of the events as exciting, there are a few that are particularly crowd-pleasing.
The two or three baton categories are really exciting because the athletes have to keep all of the batons moving at all times. And the dance twirl pair competition — with two athletes combining dance and baton twirling — is fun, too, because the duo has to be synchronized, she said.
Group events are also a lot of fun to watch because there are so many people working together, Dolan added.
“There are exchanges with three to 20 kids tossing their batons to one another,” she said. “For some people it’s their favorite part of the competition because there is so much spirit.”
Not all competitors in this week’s championships will have the kind of background that Harris has. Some may be fairly new to the world of baton twirling. So the final day includes the Festival of the Future, a national competition for beginning and intermediate twirlers.
While there are competitors who have worked at twirling for many years, there are going to be some who have never competed nationally before, Dolan said.
“It takes time to excel,” she added.
Time is exactly what Harris has invested in the sport she has given 11 years of her life to. She strives to practice every day despite her hectic schedule.
Harris is staying in Madison over the summer working at the McBurney Disability Resource Center and becoming certified to teach Pilates. She changed her major last year from engineering to rehabilitation psychology after her father endured a traumatic brain injury last summer.
“I saw the therapists helping him in his process, and it inspired me to change my major,” she said. “Even though it was a horrible situation, I’m glad I figured out what I wanted to do.”
She will be competing this week in the two-baton event on Tuesday, the solo baton event on Wednesday and the college solo baton event on Thursday.
The national finals featuring the top six athletes in the individual events will take place at approximately 4 p.m. Wednesday, Dolan said.
After this week’s championships, Harris will be looking forward to the national College Miss Majorette of America pageant later this month, where she will represent Wisconsin.
Because the U.S. National Baton Twirling Championships always travel, Harris hasn’t had the opportunity to participate before and is looking forward to her chance.
“I’m really excited since I’ve never gone to this specific competition before,” she said. “When I saw they were coming to Madison, I knew I had to go.”