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Gainesville girl twirling her way to France
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Anna Mitchell Ralston, the feature twirler for the Gainesville High School Big Red Machine, performs before a football game at Bobby Gruhn Field on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. Ralston qualified to represent the United States at the International Cup competition next summer with her baton twirling team, Twirl Forte.

Anna Mitchell Ralston grew up going to football games in Athens with her family, but while family was glued to the game, Anna Mitchell was always eagerly awaiting halftime.

At just 7 years old, she was impressed by the majorettes on the field as they twirled their batons in the air and caught them behind their backs or over their heads. She knew she wanted to do that someday.

“We were just mesmerized by the twirlers out on the field,” Anna Mitchell said.

After years of practice, Anna Mitchell, 15, is well on her way to that dream. She and her independent competition baton twirling team, Twirl Forte, have qualified for next year’s International Cup competition in France.

“We basically just wanted to go out there and kind of get a feel for it,” said Anna Mitchell, also a feature twirler for Gainesville High School. “Once we heard our name called for second (place), we were all excited … We knew we had done all our best jobs, but it was just really great to see our hard work had paid off.”

Twirl Forte competed in the artistic group category at this year’s United States Twirling Association qualifier. Each twirler, dressed as Wonder Woman, worked together to secure second place and a trip to Limoges, France, in August 2019.

The team will represent Team USA and will compete against other teams from across the world.

“It was fun because it was a mashup of so many different songs,” Anna Mitchell said. “And it was some of my favorite songs.”

Anna Mitchell also qualified for the artistic twirl pairs event with her partner, Jessica Morlan.

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Anna Mitchell Ralston practices during twirl practice at East Hall Community Center on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Ralston qualified to represent the United States at the International Cup competition next summer with her baton twirling team, Twirl Forte.
It takes a lot to get to that place, though. Anna Mitchell joined the University of Georgia’s Junior Auxiliary Program, a program created for girls in elementary, middle and high school to gain experience with the flagline and majorettes. She was 7 years old and paired up with a majorette captain, Colleen Murphy.

“She was my first student and we also kind of favor each other in appearance, so that was always a joke that everyone made,” said Murphy, a Twirl Forte coach. “I mean, I’m definitely her coach first, and as she grows older and becomes a grown-up, I think we’re going to be really true friends.”

As Anna Mitchell’s personal coach, too, Murphy has seen seen her develop and grow as an athlete over the years.

“It’s been really fun,” Murphy said. “She has a lot of natural talent and ability, and always has since she was a little girl ... now she’s kind of at the fun point of her career where she’s put in a ton of the work, and it’s nice when you're an advanced twirler and you go and you win.”

The fact that Twirl Forte qualified for the International Cup was surprising as it had never competed in the organization that was holding the competition. It had also only practiced as a team three times. It’s made up of twirlers from around the state with one from Alabama and one from South Carolina, too.

Those few practices Twirl Forte did have, though, weren't for the faint of heart: They lasted 12 hours each.

“Since it was the summer, we were able to practice a lot more than we would have during the school year,” Anna Mitchell said. “It was pretty intense, but we were able to take breaks and it was actually pretty fun because we were doing the sport we love to do.”

That fun is why she continues to twirl. Even though she still gets nervous sometimes, she said one of her favorite aspects of the sport is there’s always room to improve. It gives her the drive to stick with it.

Anna Mitchell’s mother, Lisa Ralston, said her practices have become more and more intense as the years have gone on. But Ralston has been there every step of the way, taking Anna Mitchell to competitions and practices.

Now, it’s all paid off.

“I’m very proud of her,” Ralston said. “It’s been a great activity for her. There’s a lot of opportunity to travel and make friends across the country, and now she gets to travel with those friends to see the world, really.”

As Anna Mitchell travels to France with her team as part of Team USA, she has hopes of going even further in the sport once she returns.

“I would love to be a feature twirler at whatever college I decide to go to,” Anna Mitchell said. “Just being a feature twirler is the main goal for me. But also, baton twirling can take you so many different places, so eventually I’d love to become a baton coach.”

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Anna Mitchell Ralston, right, practices with her coach, Colleen Murphy, during twirl practice at East Hall Community Center on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. Ralston qualified to represent the United States at the International Cup competition next summer with her baton twirling team, Twirl Forte.