By Ben Wright, College of Engineering
Originally from Davenport, Iowa, Annabel McAtee is one of the top twirlers in America and was a bronze medalist at the 2012 World Twirling Championships. The second-year environmental engineering major has taken a very unorthodox path to Georgia Tech that included living in a circus community in Hawaii and taking high school classes almost exclusively online. Find out more about more about the Georgia Tech Golden Girl below.
How did you get involved in twirling?
I got into twirling when I was in the third grade. Two girls did it at recess and I just thought it was so cool. I had never seen anything like that before. I grew up dancing, and switching gears to that seemed like a lot of fun. There was a little studio close to my hometown that I went to for a couple of years, once a week after school, and it took off from there. I had coaches from different parts of the country – I had a coach from Louisiana, and one from Michigan. The summer after eighth grade I made it to the world championships, which were in Switzerland. That was a really awesome experience. I competed there, and then for high school I wanted to up my level, so I switched to a coach in Hawaii. I lived with a host family for two years and trained with my coach almost non-stop.
What was it like living in Hawaii?
The place I lived was a self-sustainable artistic eco-village. It was basically a huge circus community. You would walk down the street and there would be kids juggling everywhere; it was so much fun. There were people who unicycled, did tumbling, trampoline routines, acrobatics with silks – everything you can think of from a circus. It was kind of funny, because the people who lived there were from all over the world. They grew up in the circus, moved there, and then had kids, so the kids grow up in this really unique environment. It's called SPACE: the Seaview Performing Arts Center for Education. I spent two years there and I did two years of high school online so I could travel and compete.
How did you end up at Georgia Tech?
I ended up at Tech because I went to Peru my last year of high school. Every year 12 twirlers are invited to Peru to perform in the International Spring Festival. The chaperone on that trip was the twirling coach at Tech, Brandy Kirschner. I'm from Iowa and I didn't know a lot about Tech. She asked me about my interests, and I said I wanted to be an engineer but I still wanted to twirl in school. When she told me about Tech it just sounded perfect. It had both of the things I was looking for – engineering and twirling.
I looked at a few other schools, but a lot of the ones I looked at either had a great engineering program with limited athletics or a big football program but not strong academics. I didn't even send my audition video anywhere else. I had it made for a few schools, but after visiting Tech it was the only place I really wanted to go.
What does your twirling and band practice schedule look like during the school year?
In the fall we have band practice Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and then we have workouts on Tuesday and Thursday. That's very much to prepare for the performance on the field, but I also like to work on straight up techniques in the gym so I try to fit in some of that a best as I can. It's hard during the school year.
In the spring I fit in as many practices as I can. In high school I went to an online school so I pretty much twirled all day, and coming here it was weird to switch gears. My practices are condensed compared to what I was used to, and I have to be very organized with my time.
It's kind of interesting because as a twirler you're kind of in season year-round. Fall is football season, and that's one type of performance. Then in the spring it's competition season and in the summer it's nationals. Your training varies throughout the year.
After going to an online high school, how big of a change was it to suddenly be sitting in freshman classes with hundreds of students?
Going from online classes to Tech was a BIG adjustment. I actually graduated a year early, so coming to Tech was a very big adjustment. Coming in with all of these kids who have all kinds of AP credit and college classes was overwhelming. On the other hand, by doing high school online I learned how to use a lot of the programs we use at Tech like WebAssign and MyMathLab. I was already familiar with the format of teaching at Tech since we use so much online technology, but just the pure amount of work was a big adjustment.
I like it a lot better, though. In online school you just read stuff and then answer questions about it, so coming here the teaching is a lot more engaging. The subjects come alive. My online high school was great for me, and I loved it, but Tech has really gotten me excited about my classes.
Why did you choose to study engineering?
I've always loved math and science, and for me, engineering is a way that I feel I can apply my two strengths and interests to a common good to help make the world a better place. I chose environmental engineering because when you spend a lot of time in Hawaii, you gain a huge appreciation for the trees, the sea, and the whole ecosystem. The people there live off of the land and rely on it for everything, and that made me want to protect it. I thought going into environmental engineering would be the best way for me to do that.
Do your parents have STEM backgrounds? Did anyone in particular foster your love of science and math?
My siblings and I laugh about it, because our parents are both lawyers and not at all from the science side of things. But my sister is in medical school and my little brother wants to be an engineer, so we've all found the STEM path somehow.
What do you enjoy the most about being part of the band and the Goldrush team?
Being part of Goldrush and the band is so much fun. Growing up I always competed in solo stuff. I went out there on my own, and if I did a good job I was happy for myself and if I did a bad job I was sad for myself, but you were kind of alone. Coming here and being part of a group and trying to succeed together, it's a totally different experience and it's so much fun. I remember at the ACC Championship last year, we had a great performance and we traveled together – it was all so much fun and it was great to be able to share that with a group and be a part of something special that Tech fans will remember for a long time.
For those who haven't seen you perform, what does a football game day performance look like for you?
Pre-game, I’m pretty much part of the band. Everything I do is with them, getting people excited. At halftime they usually play two songs, and during the first song I'm usually part of their performance, weaving around them, and then for the second song I usually do my performance on the sideline with two or three batons. Then I go in front of the student section and do my fire routine.
Do you have a favorite part of performing, and do you prefer performing over competing?
It's all so much fun and all so different. I love every part of it. The fire is really different and kind of cool. When you grow up in twirling, you're always competing and everyone is kind of out to get you. It's a very tense environment. Now people are actually cheering for me, like when I do fire in front of the fraternities. They want to see me do a good job, and it's so much fun. It's so different, but it's a lot more fun and enjoyable having them rooting for me instead of against me.
I still really appreciate the technical side of competition, though. It's an art as well as a sport, but I like how it's systematic and technical, like engineering. On the field it's more performance and maybe more on the art side. Performance and competition use different sides of your brain and a different focus. I love both sides of it.
What prompted you to start twirling flaming batons?
I actually started with fire when I was very young. I don't know why my parents, who are lawyers, thought that was a good idea. I was probably 10 or 11. The Iowa State Fair has a really big talent show. You qualify at a local fair and then go to the state fair and compete for a $5,000 prize. I always did fire for that, but as I got to middle school and high school I stopped because you don't use it in competitions. I picked it up again when I came to Tech.
Have you ever burned yourself?
I've never burned myself. I feel the heat, and it gets intense. After every game the hair on my arm is usually singed, but I've never had a bad burn. Nothing that required attention or left a scar. It's a lot safer than it looks... I think. The things you’d do are exactly the same as a regular baton, so if you stick to routines you're used to it's fine. The weight is a little bit different but the technique is the same. You just have to get past it mentally. Once you get the first toss over with you're all set.
Do you have time for other hobbies or interests outside of twirling and class?
I try to find time to do other things, but I have a habit of over-committing myself. I'm a member of Alpha Delta Pi. I joined because I really wanted that constant group of friends that I didn't have in high school because of my travel schedule, competing, and going to school online. Being in the sorority gives me a base. I'd like to have time to be more involved, but it's been a lot of fun so far. I'm trying to get involved in a few other organizations too. I'm doing the international plan, so that's going to be a great experience. You have to reach a proficiency level in a language then study abroad in a country that speaks that language for two semesters. I'm studying Spanish and I'm going to spend the semester in Spain in the spring. I'd like to do another semester in Latin America somewhere.
On top of that, one of things I'm very passionate about is my youth classes. I teach classes every week for younger girls, and I really like to bestow upon them the love of twirling and open their eyes to the places hard work can take you. I also like to ask them how school is going and what they're interested in. I try to teach them that it's possible to balance academics and athletics. You don't have to sacrifice one for the other.
We asked Annabel's coach, Brandy Kirschner, three questions about what makes her stand out as the Golden Girl. Here's what she had to say:
What made you want to recruit Annabel for the Golden Girl position?
It's a long story but a few years ago, I chaperoned 15 of the top twirlers in the country on a performance trip to Trujillo, Peru. After 2 long weeks of nonstop traveling, performing, very little sleep and volunteering, Annabel still had a smile on her face and the most amazing attitude. Furthermore, I noticed immediately how incredibly bright she was. I knew after that trip that she had what it would take to thrive at Georgia Tech.
What has she brought to the team, the program, and the gameday experience at Tech?
Besides our beloved Buzz, the Golden Girl is one of the most well known and appreciated students at Georgia Tech. The position was created only 7seven years ago, and in her short time at Georgia Tech, Annabel has taken the position to an entirely new level. Her warm smile and sweet demeanor has resonated with students, her teammates on the spirit squads, and Georgia Tech fans alike. As she competes on the national level representing our school, she inspires younger twirlers all over the country to reach for their extracurricular and academic goals.
How would you rate Annabel as an ambassador for Georgia Tech?
I believe Annabel not only represents herself and our school with the upmost grace, but she is a perfect example of how anyone can push their STEM studies while also pursing a passion for athletics and the arts.