By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
It’s doubtful when LeeAnn Wilson picked up her first baton that she could imagine the impact it would have on her life.
For the past four decades, Wilson has been at the helm of the Oshawa Camaros Baton Club.
The club will celebrate its 40th anniversary this Sunday, March 25.
Wilson first took up baton twirling at the age of five, and soon it became her passion.
After training with one Canada’s top coaches and choreographers, Betty Feist Lyons, she set out on a competitive career that yielded her numerous awards and accolades.
She won Junior Miss Majorette of Canada in 1973, was a Canadian Twirling Champion from 1973 to 1976, a Miss Majorette of Ontario from 1974 to 1977 and a finalist in the Teenage Miss Majorette of America competition in 1977.
According to Wilson, her greatest achievement was finishing fifth in the National Majorette Championships held in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1976, a competition that saw 106 participants.
As she came to the end of high school, Wilson realized her career would come to an end.
“Back in the day, we retired around 17 or 18 years of age. We didn’t have the opportunities to carry on,” she says.
It was then she decided she wanted to share her talents with others, and the genesis of the Oshawa club began.
A partnership was formed with the Oshawa Kinsmen Club, which led to the use of their hall and eventually receiving financial support.
The club began with 16 members, and within a year were Canadian champions.
Within the first two or three years, the ranks had grown to more than 100.
However, over the years, membership has declined.
“We are only about 30 members now. We are competing with high registration for cheerleading and dance,” Wilson explains.
“Out of the 30 we have now, I have 12 who are full-time athletes and are on a world-class level,” Wilson explains.
There are also more opportunities for twirlers to continue competing into their 20s and 30s.
“We are really trying to build the idea of kids staying after 18,” Wilson says.
She estimates she has taught approximately 500 youths over the past 40 years, some whose tenure with the club ranged from 10 to 15 years.
Durham Region is considered somewhat of a ‘hotbed’ for twirling as there are six twirling clubs here, which equates to almost half of all of those in Ontario.
The love of twirling was passed down to Wilson’ daughter Kyla, who enjoyed her own successful career and began coaching at 15 years of age.
After attending university Kyla returned to the club as a full-time coach, and now handles all choreography for performances.
“It’s very rare that daughters will follow their mother’s footsteps,” Wilson says, adding the club has given the two more time to spend together.
In fact, Wilson says a “supportive family background” is key for young twirlers to be successful.
As the years have passed by, the art of baton twirling has changed dramatically.
Back when Wilson got her start, she says all the emphasis was on the baton itself.
“When I was competing, we kind of just stood there and performed stationary.”
However, now the elements of dance and gymnastics play a much more significant role.
“We are not Majorettes anymore. This is not an art, it is a sport. We are athletes and compete at elite levels,” she says.
A tremendous amount of commitment and sacrifice is required to make it to that elite level.
“The opportunities are there, you just have to put the work into it.”
Unfortunately, these opportunities do not come without costs.
“I’ve taken kids to places like Italy, Holland, and Norway and it’s all out of our pockets. Even travelling in Canada is expensive,” Wilson says, noting that although baton twirling is a recognized sport in Ontario, clubs do not receive any type of funding.
In 2007, Wilson became the first, and to date, only baton twirler to be inducted into the Oshawa Sports Hall of Fame.
She currently sits on the organization’s board of governors.
“I’m very grateful to the City of Oshawa for recognizing [baton twirling] as a sport. I’m really proud that my city has supported what I do and the club.”
Although she had no idea all those years ago that the club would be around 40 years later, Wilson believes “as long as you love something you’ll keep doing it.”
“There have been bumps in the road – times change, things evolve. But as long as I feel I have something to share and offer young kids, I’m going to stick with it.”
If there is one regret Wilson has, it is that the club has never truly had a space to call its own.
“I really wish I had the chance to purchase a building. It would have been an investment.”
The 40th anniversary will be part of the club’s annual dress rehearsal and include a meet and greet afterward.
There will be historical photos and videos, and outfits used by the club in the past on display.
Wilson says she has reached out to many former club members on social media to invite them to the celebration.
She notes this is another example of how the club has changed over the years.
“It makes communication so much easier. There was a time when we had to use phone lists,” she recalls.
The Oshawa Camaros Baton Club 40th anniversary will take place at the Durham College gymnasium on Sunday, March 25 at 2 p.m. Admission to the event is free.
For more information on the club, visit facebook.com/camarosbaton or camarosbaton.com