COLUMBIA — It’s easy to spot Catherine Ramirez on game days in Williams-Brice Stadium. Look for a flying silver baton glittering against the noon sky or under the bright lights at night.
The baton will, without fail, return to Ramirez’s open hand.
Ramirez is a master with the baton, throwing it up into the air, rapidly twirling it in her hand or rolling it across her shoulders. Soon, another baton will join in, then another, all three flipping over and over in the air or being juggled from hand to hand, always reliably caught by USC’s featured twirler.
This weekend, at one of the biggest football games of the year, the senior will twirl one final time in Williams-Brice.
Ramirez, a fourth-year broadcast journalism student, is one of the nation’s best at baton.
The daughter of a twirling coach, she guesses she first picked up a baton at age 2. Her parents have home videos of her as a toddler spinning batons and mimicking her mother’s team.
“It’s such an integral part of my life that it was natural for her to pick it up,” said her mother, Patti Wojpowicz.
Nearly 20 years later, Ramirez has taken home countless awards in almost every division of competitive twirling. She’s competed at world championships three times and is the Northeast regional champion in all five competition categories. She was last year, too. And Ramirez has taken home more than 20 national championship titles.
“When I’m doing a good performance, there’s nothing in my head,” Ramirez said. “When I’m in Williams-Brice, I just try to sit back and enjoy the moment. So when I look that happy, I really am that happy.”
Ramirez started twirling with fire at halftime during her sophomore year in college. Twirling fire is a regular crowd-pleaser, with friends raucously cheering for Ramirez by name.
Wojpowicz gave her daughter her first lesson with flaming batons.
“When you start with fire, you’re at a high level,” Wojpowicz said.
“It’s not dangerous when you know what you’re doing.”
For her daughter, it’s all about self-confidence.
“You have to be a very good twirler who’s very secure in what she does,” said Ramirez, who twirls three burning batons. “The second you stop moving it will burn you. You just have to go for it.”
Wojpowicz is almost always in the stands, her daughter’s biggest cheerleader.
“Her being able to twirl in college is the icing on the cake,” Wojpowicz said. “It’s a reward for all the time, all the money, all the travel we’ve put in over the years.”
Ramirez has been competing since age 6, beginning with local competitions around her hometown of Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J. In her 15 years of competitive baton twirling, she’s competed across the country and the world, twirling at Disney World’s Epcot and in Scotland, and even marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Ramirez is the sixth best collegiate twirler in the nation. But her dedication to baton doesn’t monopolize her time. She is a senior peer leader within USC’s 101 program and has held leadership positions in her sorority. She is about to begin her senior practicum in broadcast journalism, in which she must help produce a daily newscast.
“I’m still Catherine Ramirez, but people don’t know who I am or what my major is. I’m a different person on the field,” she said. “I’ve definitely learned I am most productive when I’m busiest. There are just some points where I want to sit in my room and eat ice cream and do nothing, but being on campus from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. is when I’m at my best.”
Ramirez will stop twirling after this year’s world championships, but she said she still plans to balance baton with everything else in her life. She hopes to be a coach like her mother and judge for regional competitions.
The fact that Saturday will be her last performance at Williams-Brice hasn’t sunk in yet, Ramirez said.
“It’s going to hit me on the field at the beginning of halftime, and it’s going to be really sad. Twirling at Williams-Brice is one of my favorite memories at Carolina. It’s kind of going to be a happy moment because I’ve done my four years, and I’m excited to see someone else do it when I leave, but I’m going to miss all my friends. Marching band gives you a family.”
When she gives that final performance at Williams-Brice, Wojpowicz will be there watching.
“I’ve won a lot of stuff and been to a lot of places for baton, but by far her favorite opportunity has been seeing me twirl for Carolina,” Ramirez said. “She will be hysterically crying in the stands, trying to take pictures through her tears.”