Kaylyn Ahrenstein stands in the center of the football stadium at Stony Brook University, baton in hand, waiting for the marching band to begin playing. Wearing a short red uniform on a mid-November afternoon, the featured twirler raises her baton and smiles at the crowd.
As the music begins, she twirls the baton between her fingers, then throws it high in the air as she spins and flips across the field a few times before letting it fall gracefully back into her hand.
It’s an eye-catching stunt the Shoreham-Wading River graduate has performed countless times.
Now a senior at Stony Brook, Kaylyn’s performances with the marching band at Seawolves football and basketball games represent the culmination of a career that has taken her across the world and won her a bevy of medals.
She reached elite skill level twirling at age 9, making her one of the youngest twirlers to ever compete at that level. At 14, she competed in Ireland against girls from across the globe in the World Baton Twirling Championship.
“People ask me, ‘What are your goals?’ and I can’t really say I have any left,” Kaylyn, now 22, said shortly before performing at her final Stony Brook football game Nov. 12.
For the past two years, she has attended the college’s home football and basketball games to perform with the marching band during its pre-show and halftime performances. As the only featured twirler, she also stands with the band members on the sidelines.
Kaylyn never expected to be a member of the marching band when she decided to give up competitive twirling at age 19. She figured the time had come to focus solely on school, pursuing her goal to work in sports media and beginning the next chapter of her life.
That changed the first time she sat in the stands at LaValle Stadium and watched the band perform.
“I saw that there was a giant hole in the center of the field,” Kaylyn said, and decided that empty space should be filled with a twirler.
She has since become a prominent figure at football and basketball games. She even had the opportunity to dance with the band Walk The Moon when they performed on campus last year and asked the marching band to help perform their hit song “Shut Up and Dance.”
Although Kaylyn may look glamorous on the field with the band, the sport isn’t all elegance and grace. She underwent wrist surgery at age 15 for a cyst that developed on a nerve from overuse. A few months later, she arrived at a competition wearing a brace, which she removed only during her routine. She has performed more times than she can remember with broken thumbs.
“My dad always taught me what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said.
Kaylyn remembers the first time she broke her thumb. She looked at her dad and said, “It’s not going to kill me; I’m going to go compete.”
She ended up winning that day.
“As a competitor, she was very focused, and when she had a goal in mind she didn’t let outside distractions bother her,” said Ginnette Groome, who has coached Kaylyn since she was 9. A longtime twirler herself, Ms. Groome said twirling has its traditional background in America, like with marching bands and drumlines, but many are unfamiliar with its competitive side.
“It’s very athletic,” she said. “It’s a true sport that involves a lot of dance and gymnastics.”
Kaylyn trained with coaches to learn the gymnastics and dance components for different freestyle routines in competitions. Her mother, Barbara, said the family is highly invested in her daughter’s twirling. They were, and still are, her biggest fans.
“When she decided to stop competing it was almost like a melancholy feeling. It was like, ‘What do we do with our time?’” Ms. Ahrenstein said.
She asked her daughter shortly before her sixth birthday if she wanted to try twirling. As soon as she held the baton in her hand, Kaylyn said, she fell in love with it. From there, it was 13 years of competitions, late-night practices and cross-country trips. She participated in more than 100 competitions, including, most notably, the world and national championships. She received two silver medals from the world championships — one in 2008 when the event was held in Ireland and one in 2011 when it was held in Florida. She also received numerous gold medals from the national championships, including during her final year competing.
Ms. Ahrenstein describes her daughter as dedicated. In high school, she said, a typical Monday and Tuesday for Kaylyn included a full day of school, then cheering practice from 3 to 5:30 p.m., homework while she ate dinner and twirling practice at a local gym until 10 p.m.
She said her daughter’s involvement with the sport helped to develop who she is as a person.
“Spending her whole lifetime doing this, it really did shape her into this ambitious person she is now,” she said. She added that she never wanted her daughter to make twirling her life, as some competitors did. She wanted her daughter to be well-rounded and experience other things and, while Kaylyn agreed, she always found her way back to twirling and didn’t stop until she decided to officially retire from competing. She remains involved in the sport through the marching band; she also coaches and has become a certified judge.
Even after a decade’s worth of competitions, Kaylyn still gets butterflies when she performs at school.
“When it comes to twirling on the field at Stony Brook, where I know that students are looking at me in the hallways later, it scares me,” she said.
The fear, she said, comes from what people will think if she drops the baton.
In competitions, dropping the baton isn’t the worst thing that can happen: It’s actually expected. Kaylyn compared it to a basketball player not being able to make every shot he takes.
The challenge is nailing her technique, and she has no shortage of tricks. She can use three batons at once and even knows how to use fire batons, though she doesn’t use them at games. However, even at a young age, it was important for her to develop her skills.
When Kaylyn was young, her mother recalled, they would be sitting in the airport after nationals waiting to go home. While every other girl who competed was tired and resting, her daughter was running around the airport, asking all the older competitors if they could show her the more advanced compulsories.
As determined as she was to learn everything she could about the sport, Kaylyn admits it was never so much about winning, but about beating her personal best.
With college graduation upon her, Kaylyn’s performing days will soon come to an end, although she wants to remain involved with the sport by coaching and judging. She said she’s thankful to her family for being able to help her over the years and for financially supporting her so that she could excel in the sport.
“It was a really good life,” she said. “I was lucky.”
Aside from her accomplishments within the sport, Kaylyn said she is most proud of the fact that she can now coach young girls and teach them how to react when they lose and how to keep their heads up. For her, the best part about twirling has always been the adventure, not the medals.
“Doing my best and having people cheer for me is just an incredible feeling. That’s the best part of it all,” she said.