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WVU feature twirlers spin their way to international recognition

group West Virginia University???s feature twirlers have spun years of hard work into winning top honors, both nationally and internationally.

Ashley Oplinger, Donovan Sarr and Whitney Whittaker are all in their second season twirling with the Mountaineer Marching Band, ???The Pride of West Virginia.???

Many people watching the twirlers on the field don???t know the team members are national and international twirling champions who have spent years perfecting their art, said Paula Stout, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences who coaches the threesome.

???Because it???s quite competitive for them to get to this level, our twirlers are also excellent students and interesting people???good at multi-tasking,??? Stout said. ???They have each won several national and international awards.???

Oplinger, a WVU senior studying public relations, has won numerous Pennsylvania state and regional titles, as well as international titles in three-baton, strut and duet. The 2003 Owen J. Roberts High School graduate (Pottstown, Pa.) is also a former Junior and Senior Miss Majorette of the North Atlantic.

Sarr, a junior psychology major at WVU, became Senior Men???s Two-Baton Champion in April 2006, when he traveled to Eindhoven, Holland, to compete on the U.S. World Team. A 2004 Mount Gilead (Ohio) High School graduate, he has also earned numerous Ohio State and Great Lakes regional titles in solo, two-baton, three-baton and rhythmic twirl.

Moreover, Sarr was the 2004 Men???s National Twirling Champion and the 2006 Men???s Collegiate Twirling Champion.

Whittaker, a WVU doctoral student in physical therapy, previously twirled for the University of South Carolina while earning her undergraduate degree. A 2001 graduate of Jefferson High School (Shenandoah Junction) she won Miss Majorette of America four times, the first time when she was only six years old.

Whittaker has also won 25 world and national titles and more than 100 state and regional titles. She won second place in two-baton and strut in the 2000 international competition in England.

???We rarely get attention as twirlers because most people dismiss it as something that only happens at football games,??? Sarr said. ???Twirling on the field and competing are two very different aspects of twirling.???

Sarr has been competing nationally for the past four years and internationally for the past year. Unlike most college twirlers who have been training for 10 or 15 years, he started twirling only five years ago when he was a sophomore in high school.

???My mother had been a majorette and taught me some things when I was younger, but being a boy twirler in a small town was unconventional,??? he said.

When Sarr saw a boy from a rival school twirling at a homecoming game, he decided to try it. He immediately began working with a private coach, which meant traveling two hours every Sunday. In addition to the long drive, he practiced two to three hours every day.

Sarr is the first male twirler the WVU Band has had since 1971, the last year when the band was all-male.

Most competitive twirlers begin practicing at a young age. Oplinger started twirling and working with a coach at age seven.

???There???s a big difference between the kinds of twirling you might see a typical high school majorette doing and what we do,??? she said. ???We sometimes cringe when people call us majorettes, because we???re twirlers.???

Whittaker also began twirling as a young child. She started taking lessons at age three and working with a coach at age five. Her father enrolled her in her first competition.

???My parents came to every game I ever performed in, sometimes driving eight hours each way when I was going to school in South Carolina,??? Whittaker said. ???They have also come to every WVU game. They are my biggest fans.???

That kind of support and commitment is typical for the WVU Band and Feature Twirlers, said Stout, who has been the twirling coach for the past 20 years and was also a feature twirler with ???The Pride??? in the 1970s

???Like the band members, our twirlers rehearse every night, but they are students first, and they have a full schedule of classes during the day and all the responsibilities that go with that.

???Our twirlers this year are great because they are competitive, but they are all good friends too,??? she added. ???They love being in the spotlight, but even behind the scenes, they are having a blast.???

For more information, contact Charlene Lattea, 304-293-4841 ext. 3108.

You can find photos of the feature twirlers at the WVU Marching Band online photo gallery .