Bowie's Laney Puhalla twirls her way to gold at world championships

jochavez@capgaznews.com

Bowie resident Laney Puhalla made history by fighting through grief and uncharacteristic errors at the World Baton Twirling Championships earlier this month.

Puhalla, 17, won the gold medal in the Junior Women’s Event at the 2018 World Baton Twirling Championships — the twirling world’s highest level of competition — Aug. 2-5 in Kissimmee, Florida. She was the first American to win gold in the junior division in 24 years.

“It felt great,” Puhalla said. “I try not to put too much pressure on myself, even though there’s a lot more riding on (this competition). In the back of your mind, you always know it’s a little more important that you do well.”

Keeping a level head was imperative for Puhalla, who traveled a tough road to arrive at the gold. She had just finished competing in the Miss Majorette twirling event in Indiana when she and her mother, Christie, had planned to drive to Ohio to catch a flight to Florida. They were surprised to learn Laney had won that event, which meant they had to attend an afterparty.

They arrived in Ohio late and caught a plane, arriving in time “by the grace of God,” Christie said. But on the first day of the competition, the Puhallas learned that Laney’s aunt had passed away.

The first day of competition was rough for Puhalla. Uncharacteristic errors during fundamental progressions had her in sixth place to start.

“After the first day I was a little distraught, a little upset,” she said. “At the time (sixth place) felt impossible to come back from. The goal is to be top three in that compulsory program element because then you can maybe put out perfect routines and still (place high).”

In the junior division, the competition is broken up into four programs: one “compulsory” program and three “long” programs. The score that comes from the compulsory program — which is more regimented than the freestyle-oriented long programs —stays with the twirler throughout the competition.

The first long program pares the competition down from around 70 twirlers to 20. The second program cuts the remainder in half for final program.

Most twirlers perform with music they are familiar with, but a last-minute realization after the trials competition in March caused Puhalla’s coach, Dale White, to push for a music changing.

Japanese competition has dominated twirling at the world level for years, White said. Puhalla performed her program to a version of “Send in the Clowns,” a song from the 1973 musical “A Little Night Music,” which White estimated to not be a strong enough selection to win.

“I knew in my heart that it was a good program, but it wasn’t a great program,” he said. “In order to be at the world championship level, let’s face it, you have to be at the Japanese’s level. We had a discussion about it and Laney was fine with it. She said, ‘Whatever it takes.’”

Despite a rough compulsory round, Puhalla twirled and danced her way to gold.

“She’s a dream come true,” White said of coaching her. “She has learned all of these various skills that are so vast. In baton twirling, you don’t really have a lot of athletes that have that much of a background and that much training in all of those areas … Rarely do I have to spend time on teaching her technique, because she already has that.”

It was clear from a young age that Puhalla had the skill to excel.

Christie said she first realized her daughter’s potential during her first nationals competition in 2008, the World Federation of National Baton Twirling Associations’ 0-6 years-old beginners’ division, in which Laney took first place.

She performed well in every phase of the competition, but when it came time to announce final places, Christie realized her daughter was going up against around 70 other top-notch twirlers, a much deeper pool of talented twirlers than she anticipated.

“I hadn’t been (to an event like that) in 20 years,” she said. “I had no idea what sort of competition she would face.”

But as officials announced the names of top-place finishers for each event, Christie started to realize her daughter may have done something special.

“By the time they got to third or second (place), I thought, ‘Oh, my god, she might have won this,’” she said. “And then they got to first and she won.”

Puhalla swept all three events.

“I was in shock,” Christie said.

Puhalla has lived in Bowie her whole life. After graduating high school at 15-years-old, she enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College and is majoring in premedical studies. She hopes to transfer to the University of Maryland next year.

Growing up she paired twirling with pageantry. In 2013, she won the first Miss Maryland Preteen competition, but in the years since, twirling has been “consuming,” she said, but she still hopes to break back into the pageant world.

“I’ve always loved it and I love the aspect of giving back to the community,” Puhalla said. “I love being out and helping others. Miss Maryland gave me a lot of opportunities to do that. “

In the meantime, Puhalla is preparing to leave for Peru in September as an ambassador for the sport, through a program run by the Lions Club. She’ll be one of 10-15 ambassadors from the United States.

When she gets home, it’s back to training for the next goal.

“Hopefully if I qualify for the next worlds, I can go for gold in the senior division,” she said.

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