During Western Michigan University’s halftime shows at Waldo Stadium, baton twirlers perform with two to three fire batons at once. For most of them this is an advanced collegiate skill, but for 21-year-old twirler and burn survivor Brianna Bolinger, it is an opportunity make a statement that she is no victim.
“My entire life a lot of people have tried to classify me as a burn victim,” Bolinger, a WMU junior, said. “It’s saying that the fire claimed you and you didn’t overcome it. While navigating the whole process of learning to twirl fire batons, it was also a process to myself of discovering that I was truly a burn survivor rather than a burn victim. The flames didn’t claim me, I was able to overpower them.”
Bolinger has worn her scars since she was three years old — when her accident happened in 2001. Growing up on a farm in Markle, Indiana, she followed her dad around constantly to watch him work. On this particular day, he was working to hydrate his cattle as the August drought had soaked up the creek in their pasture. He was creating a water source using an old oil drum that Bolinger compared to a soup can.
“Picture that cylinder a hundred times bigger,” Bolinger said. “If you cut the bottom of the soup can, you can fill it up with water enough that the cows would be able to soak it over and drink the water.”
Inside the oil drum were fumes that Bolinger’s dad was unaware of. When he lit a torch to cut it, an explosion erupted blowing him away from the drum and billowing flames toward Bolinger.
“I was three years old,” Bolinger said. “I didn’t know that when something like that happens, you get up and run. I just was stuck inside the fire.”
By the time Bolinger’s father fought through the flames to rescue her, she already had third degree burns on 60 percent of her body. She was airlifted to St. Joseph Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana where she recovered in the burn unit for two months.
“The doctors weren’t sure what the livelihood of my life was going to look like because at that point you have a three year old who’s young, hasn’t grown (and) hasn’t matured,” Bolinger said. “They just weren’t sure about a lot of things.”
One of the greatest concerns doctors had was Bolinger’s flexibility due to contractures which are formed from skin grafts that get tight over points of flexion like joints. Bolinger’s mother, a former baton twirler herself, enrolled her daughter in baton twirling classes to help with flexibility.
“I fell in love with it,” Bolinger said.
Advancing beyond the recreational program, Bolinger began competing at age six.
“I did it because it was fun,” Bolinger said. “My mom and I never really had the goal of getting good or being an elite-level twirler. We just did it because it was something I loved to do.”
Bolinger’s only goal was to win a red “Indiana State Fair Champion” banner at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis — a goal she said felt less prestigious now than it did in her youth. After winning the title, she decided to keep competing. At nine years old, Bolinger’s twirling coach recommended additional coaching if she wanted to advance in her skills. She began practicing under Kyle Keiser, WMU’s Bronco Marching Band Visual Coordinator. The two sparked a connection immediately.
“I can honestly say the unspoken connection began with us in the very first lesson,” Keiser said. “I knew it laid such a promising framework.”
Keiser, a World Baton Twirling Federation judge and coach, and Bolinger bonded over both having experienced traumatic injuries. When Keiser was in college, she was seriously injured in a ski accident.
“I understand overcoming obstacles, having to work your way back to something and having ‘before’ and ‘after’ moments in your life that define you,” Keiser said. “Though we were very different ages at the times of our relative accidents, the unspoken connection of being with someone else who has had a life altering moment is unique.”
Under Keiser’s coaching, Bolinger went on to win four national twirling titles: three in the category of strut and one in elite artistic pairs. Her first win was in 2010 and they continued throughout high school. In 2015 and 2017 she qualified for and competed on Team USA in the International Cup Championships in Canada and Croatia and placed fourth both times.
“There’s not a more defining moment for an athlete than knowing your years of dedication and work has turned into something that can all be put into one moment,” Bolinger said. “You practice for hours and hours in a gym by yourself — it’s just you and essentially, a 30-inch-long piece of metal that you’re throwing in the air doing crazy things under. You do the same trick over and over again just hoping to have a higher accuracy with it for that one moment on the floor. All these hours you put into it come down to a routine that’s barely two minutes long and you get one shot.”
After having performed at WMU’s Band Day annually while in high school, Bolinger felt compelled to attend the University and continue with Keiser on the twirling team.
“I fell in love with Western and I fell in love with the family dynamic the marching band has,” Bolinger said. “I always knew I wanted to twirl in college, I just didn’t know where. When I started looking at schools, I looked all over. I had auditions at Big 10 schools, different MACs and nothing has ever felt the same way as the magic Waldo Stadium can provide.”
When Bolinger isn’t twirling, she is focusing on her degree in nursing — a path she chose because of her own story. Bolinger hopes to work in a burn unit with burn survivors some day.
“I knew it had to be something that I could be passionate about,” Bolinger said. “I didn’t want to go into something my heart wasn’t into and when I really thought about what made the difference in the way I grew up and the positives that have turned out of my accident, it truly was the nurses that took care of me. I wanted to be able to do the same for someone else.”
Challenges in twirling and body image
While her incident happened years ago, Bolinger said there are times when she is triggered by the flaming fire batons.
“You don’t have to be a burn survivor to be freaked out with the fact that you’re twirling fire and there are flames in your face,” Bolinger said. “It can be scary. It would put me in a place in my head where I would be thinking about the flames being too close to my body instead of the choreography I was supposed to be doing.”
However, Bolinger welcomes this challenge as an opportunity to overcome what happened to her.
“Everytime I pick up a fire baton, it’s a way for me to tell the world that the flames didn’t claim me in my life,” Bolinger said. “It’s a way that I can own fire rather than it owning me. I think that can be an essence for anyone no matter what is trying to knock you down, that if you can take power over that and overcome it you can essentially do anything.”
Bolinger has faced difficulties in her career, especially regarding body issues.
“For a burn survivor it’s harder because your biggest life accident and story is written all over your body,” Bolinger said. “You walk in a room and people notice you which is not a bad thing, but it’s just not the attention that every single person will receive. Growing up in a situation like that, it can be harder to define yourself.”
More specifically, Bolinger’s body issues revolved around the amount of skin shown when she wears a twirling costume. Her arms, which hold most of her scars, are completely exposed and her pulled up hair reveals that she only has one ear. Bolinger said it could be difficult to keep an elite mindset when it feels like “every eye is on you for the wrong reasons.”
She chose to focus this energy on her skills instead of letting it get to her.
“I quickly learned that if I could show the world my ability, they could see the power behind a burn survivor — that they were more than just their appearance,” Bolinger said.
In the 12 years she has coached her, Bolinger’s ability to“transition and adapt between the different stages of her life” stands out most, Keiser said.
“When a strong and stubborn girl has to find her own way to process change and growth, it makes it all that more significant,” Keiser said. “She has continuously tested her limits and reached for growth in socialization, education, spirituality, leadership and personal empowerment.”
Her future and faith
Other than the occasional competition representing WMU, Bolinger no longer competes. Once this football season ends, she has just her senior year left in her twirling career, however she hopes to coach in the future.
Often asked if she would change the fact that she watched her dad at work the day her accident happened, Bolinger says no. She believes God placed this incident in her life to make her a better person.
“Without my story and without the way God has influenced my life, I wouldn’t be here at Western; I don’t think I ever would have become a baton twirler and I definitely don’t believe I would have been a nursing student,” Bolinger said.
Apart from being a burn survivor advocate, Bolinger hopes to use her story to teach people about God.
“Growing up, I always kept the thought in my head that Jesus took his scars for us, so I could take my scars for Him,” Bolinger said. “If I could shine a little bit of light in this world based on the way I look and being able to lead people toward more positivity, that was a cross I could bear.”