Matiash Takes The Baton For A Twirl

It is a sport that requires agility, stamina and incredible concentration. This may sound like golf or gymnastics, but Jeff Matiash doesn't swing a 5 iron or work the pommel horse. What he does is twirl a baton.

The 18-year-old academic exploration major has been working at his craft for more than 15 years, the pinnacle of which came in April when he appeared at the National Baton Twirling Association World Baton Championships in Ghent, Belgium, and garnered a bronze medal. It was a whirlwind trip, but one that was embraced by the hard-working Matiash.

"It was a wonderful experience and the outcome was kind of unexpected," he says.
Matiash got his start in twirling by watching his sister, Brittany, practice at the Niagara Royalettes and Majorettes studio in Niagara Falls. "While I was there, I would steal her baton," he recalls.

Brittany was a great role model for a then 3-year-old Jeff. "I thought it was really cool that she was learning new things," he says. "When she would toss the baton in the air, I would get excited and want to do that, too."

It wasn't until he was 7 years old that Matiash began to take twirling seriously. In 1997, he was an alternate for his sister's group at the U.S. Nationals. "I got to do my own thing on the side and I was just enjoying every moment of it," he says. Seeing all the best twirlers in the country cemented his future ambitions for success.

"My dream from then on was to make the world championships," Matiash says.
Since that first appearance at nationals, Matiash has honed his skills. He spends 10 hours a week practicing his routine at the Niagara Royalettes studio with studio owner and coach Judy Evans. "I'm not a person who likes to practice for long," Matiash says jokingly. He notes that "practicing a routine over and over again helps me gain the stamina" needed to perform competition routines, which typically last two and a half minutes.

During training, Matiash perfects moves he may use in events. "One move I like to do is to bounce the baton off my leg," he says. He frequently includes this move in his routines.

An integral part of any twirling routine is the choreography and the first step is picking out music. Matiash and Evans review a long playlist of possible songs to find just the right one. "We try to find something that signifies me and is easy to interpret," Matiash says. "It usually takes me a few months to choose one." Matiash and Evans slowly narrow the list until they agree on a song that works best with the routine.

For a long time, Matiash performed to instrumental pieces. Recently, he shook things up a bit and chose Vanessa Carlton's version of "Paint it Black." "It was a different direction for me," he says of the song, which was originally recorded by The Rolling Stones. "I liked it because it's more upbeat."

Jeff Matiash with Calvin Murphy, '70, who is also an

accomplished baton twirler.

Matiash also works on his routine by performing during Niagara basketball games at the Gallagher Center. He has received kudos from Niagara and NBA Hall-of-Famer Calvin Murphy, an accomplished twirler himself. Matiash has crossed paths with Murphy on more than one occasion; the most recent was prior to the men's game versus Illinois State in February. "He told me to stick to it and continue to work hard," Matiash recalls.

Last year, Matiash took part in his fifth nationals, which were held at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Nearly 1,500 competitors from around the United States were on hand. Matiash notes that the nationals are very much like a gymnastics competition during the Olympic

Games. There are 30 lanes in the arena with different events going on simultaneously. He describes the atmosphere at nationals as "incredible" because everyone involved - participants, coaches and parents - is very supportive and positive.

As in gymnastics, Matiash says, a baton routine should catch the eyes of the judges. "You like to start off with a hard trick," he explains. "Then you go into things that look simple, but are actually really difficult." Routines don't center only on tosses, but rather include a lot of rolls, which require the twirler to relax, despite how tense he or she might be due to the excitement of the event. Matiash notes that these intervals provide a "breather" before the final part of the routine, which also must be an eye-catcher. "You want a big finale so the judges are impressed," he says.

Matiash placed third in the nationals, which earned him a spot at the world championships in Belgium. "I cried because I didn't expect to make it," Matiash says.

Accompanied by his parents, Mary, the longtime secretary in Niagara's department of athletics, and Keith; older brother Nick, a junior at Niagara; Brittany; and Evans, Matiash traveled 4,000 miles to get to Ghent to realize his dream.

More than 1,000 women and nearly 30 men competed in Belgium. Matiash performed in one category, rhythmic twirl, and placed in the top six during the first day of competition, which earned him a spot in the finals on April 12.

Up against the best twirlers in the world, Matiash remained relatively calm during the finals and kept the moment in perspective. "I thought that this is the last time I will get to do this and I should enjoy it," he says, adding that he also thought about his mother's encouragement that no matter what, his presence in Ghent was a big step.

After Matiash performed his final routine, he left the floor discouraged. "I was thinking about the mistakes I made," he says. "I thought I did better in the preliminary round."

However, later that day he heard the news he had waited a lifetime to hear - he had placed in the top three in the world. "I was overwhelmed and very shocked," Matiash says. Watching the United States flag being raised in honor of his accomplishment was a special moment for Matiash. "It's a pretty good feeling when you see the flags rising and one of them is yours," he says.

Proud family and friends began to call and share their excitement about Matiash's success. "My cell phone was ringing off the hook," he says. His Facebook page was also filled with congratulatory messages. "They were very happy that someone from our area had done something like this," Matiash notes.

Matiash knows that his days of competing are winding down. "My body will not be able to take it when I'm 28," he admits. He has a plan for the future, though: He wants to teach the next generation of twirlers at Niagara Royalettes and continue performing at Niagara basketball games.

Jeff Matiash has been on a pretty unique ride around the country and the world. "It has been a dream," he says. All he had to do was pick up the baton.

Jeff Matiash and his coah, Judy Evans

Matiash and his coach, Judy Evans, at the World Baton Championships.