The sport of acrobatics and tumbling is 10 years old and has held nine official national championships. Baylor head coach Felecia Mulkey has won all nine of them — four at the University of Oregon and the last five at Baylor University. On April 27, Baylor defeated Oregon 278.400-271.725 to win its fifth title in a row. Mulkey is 53-1 at Baylor.
Coach Fee (as she’s been called since Oregon) is also one of the creators of the sport, which builds on the skill sets of 8 million female athletes in the country who participate in cheer and gymnastics. Coach Fee’s background is in both.
While growing up in Atlanta, she participated in gymnastics, then switched to cheer. She loved the team aspect and the athleticism but wasn’t into the pompoms. She attended Kennesaw State University in Georgia, graduating in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in health and exercise science, then stayed to build a competitive cheer program that won championships. In September she is being honored as a member of the KSU Athletics Hall of Fame.
She also served as marketing director in the athletic department for eight years. From Kennesaw she went to Oregon to head up their program, where she won, won, won and won while making time to earn a master’s in sports management from West Virginia University. She came to Baylor in June 2014.
Coach Fee’s experience in an athletic department — something she also did at Baylor until recently, as associate athletics director and senior woman administrator — has served her well as the director of expansion for the National Collegiate Acrobatics & Tumbling Association, NCATA. The organization directs the sport, trains its coaches, determines its scoring system and shepherds its mission to make acrobatics and tumbling an NCAA sport. A big step forward in that process happened June 3, when it received status as an emerging sport. With Coach Fee’s continued evangelism, it could receive full status as early as next August.
“When we created the sport, we looked at it through every lens: from a student-athlete, from an administrative, from a crowd perspective. We didn’t want people to just compete. We wanted it to be a fun spectator sport too,” Mulkey said.
Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Coach Fee in her office at Marrs McLean Gym about the opportunities in acrobatics and tumbling for female student-athletes, Baylor’s growing enthusiasm for the sport and the time she stole the microphone from John Morris.
Mulkey: I’m glad since you’re recording that you’re coming in later because earlier there was a volleyball camp in here [Marrs McLean].
WACOAN: You have acrobatics and tumbling camps here in the next two weeks, right?
Mulkey: We do [July 12-14 and 19-21]. Interest has grown over the last five years. We had a waiting list for the first time.
WACOAN: What ages?
Mulkey: Ages 8-18.
WACOAN: Do they come from all over Texas?
Mulkey: They come from all over the country. Parents will fly in and they stay in dorms, or they can be commuters. Parents will tour Waco, since we’re quite the tourist attraction now, or they’ll stay in a nearby hotel and come over during the day. We’ve got quite a few from out of state.
WACOAN: I want to start with the announcement June 3 by the NCAA, giving acrobatics and tumbling status as an emerging sport. What can you tell us about this decision?
Mulkey: There’s a lot. The sport was created about 10 years ago by a group of coaches and collegiate administrators, specifically to meet the interests and abilities of a group of young women. There are 8 million female athletes training in the skill sets that you’d use in acrobatics and tumbling.
We saw there was an opportunity to be a gymnast at the collegiate level, or you can be a cheerleader at the collegiate level, but nothing that fits the needs of this population. So we got together and created it. We’re the only sport other than football that has been created at the college level and is actually trickling down to the youth level. We’re created from skill sets that already exist.
The sport utilizes tumbling, acrobatics, all different disciplines of gymnastics, high-level competitive cheer (the athletic aspects of cheerleading). We put these skill sets together into one sport and created it for the collegiate level.
We’ve been working for 10 years with NCAA. There’s a process to go through for this emerging sport list. There’s a committee within the NCAA called the Committee on Women’s Athletics. And what they do is review all these proposals that come in, looking deeply into the sport: how it’s run, how it’s implemented on campuses, how it’s scored, everything about the sport. For them to look at it that deeply and then give it backing to become an emerging sport is huge. It was even bigger for me because it’s been 10 years.
It’s a really big deal what we’ve done. Other sports, like women’s wrestling — which was also backed by NCAA [in June] to be put on this list — there’s usually a male counterpart to the sport. The traditional path is you’re a female counterpart to the male sport. You start at the club level, and you work your way up. There’s no male counterpart to our sport. We simply created it. It’s not that the other way is wrong, it’s just these different paths. So we’re the only sport to come through in this way.
WACOAN: From what I understand, now all three NCAA divisions — Division I, Division II and Division III — have to vote in acrobatics and tumbling?
Mulkey: All vote us in individually. All my fingers and toes are crossed. But if one doesn’t and the other two do, we’ll still be an emerging sport. Division I has looked at it preliminarily, and it will be voted on in January. Division II and III, their councils meet later in July.
What it means for the sport is just recognition. We’ve already seen rapid growth, but I think we’re gonna see [even more] rapid growth now.
WACOAN: To reach full NCAA status the sport has to have varsity programs at 40 participating schools, and currently acrobatics and tumbling has 29 NCAA schools. I saw an interview you did with Jerry Hill for the Baylor Bear Insider about getting to that magic number, and you said, ‘Everybody talks about that number 40, but I’m thinking like 60, 75. Let’s go!’
Mulkey: The number 40 will get us to championship status, which, I will celebrate that day as well. But the whole reason for starting this sport was to create opportunities for female athletes to compete at the college level. So if we stopped at 40, we’d be limiting those numbers again. If our goal is to create constant opportunities, we’re gonna keep adding.
WACOAN: Having people from around the country come here to attend your summer camps, that’s indicative of the enthusiasm.
Mulkey: And our fan base is growing here, on campus. I can tell too, when we’re out recruiting, we’re talking to individuals, and 10 years ago we were explaining the sport quite a bit. Now most people understand and know the sport.
I’m the director of expansion for the National Collegiate Athletics & Tumbling Association, NCATA, and when I’m talking to athletic directors now, I’m still explaining the sport, but they’re coming to me for more information. It used to be me beating down the door, going, ‘Let me tell you about this.’ Now it’s, ‘Hey, can you tell me more about it?’
WACOAN: Do you still find skeptics?
Mulkey: We do.
The reason our sport is what it is, is because of Gary Gray, and he was the biggest skeptic I’ve ever met. When I moved to Oregon, he was our director of compliance. I use his name because he knows I tell this story, and he’s a huge fan now.
When I ended up in Oregon, we were creating the sport at the time, with [coach] Nancy Post from Baylor, with all these administrators. We knew we wanted to do something with the skill set. Different schools called it different things. Baylor called it competitive cheer.
When I got [to Oregon], the consensus was they’re just taking the cheer team and saying it’s a sport — which was completely incorrect, but that was on the blogs. I spent that first year trying to win people over. And Gary Gray, he was adamantly opposed to this movement. He was the most outspoken.
I went in one day, to find out why he hates me or I’ve got to move back across the country with my two wiener dogs. I ask him, ‘Why do you hate this so much?’ He leans back in his chair, and I thought I had an argument ready for him, and he poked holes in every one of my ideas. It was the best thing to happen to me and the best thing to happen to the sport. The best intentions were there, but the things he pointed out to me that day, I walked out of there, going, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’s right.’ From the feedback he gave me, I got back with my coaches and administrators and told them, ‘If we want this to be a collegiate sport, we’ve got to think like a collegiate administrator.’
My favorite skeptic of all time is Gary Gray. I still meet [skeptics] every once in a while, but they’re not as adamant, mostly just questioning. Usually with the skeptic, it’s a lack of information on their part.
WACOAN: Explain more about your position as director of expansion with the NCATA.
Mulkey: It’s a completely volunteer position. I serve on the executive board of the national organization. I think that I am the loudmouth and therefore the director of expansion.
But I contact athletic directors across the country, either cold turkey or I’m at events or people will suggest, ‘You should call this person.’ I meet with athletic directors and administrators to explain the sport, see if it fits on their campus and then help them implement [it], create a candidate field for their coaches. I’m the on-boarding process.
WACOAN: Speaking about explaining the sport, I found a piece you wrote for the The Guardian back in 2013.
WACOAN: In it you said, ‘My passion for the sport of acrobatics and tumbling comes from watching so many women train in the different disciplines of gymnastics over the years only to be left with nothing to do as they entered college.’ Could you explain how it typically works if a gymnast is not at the Olympic level? What are her options?
Mulkey: There are 8 million young women with this skill set in all the disciplines that we recruit from. I think it’s four young women (it used to be five) that make the Olympic team. It bottlenecks when you go to that elite level.
So the next level would be collegiate gymnastics, and there are only about 80 schools that sponsor women’s collegiate gymnastics in the country. The roster size is 15-16. I’m ballparking here, so there are maybe 1,500 or 1,800 different opportunities to be a collegiate gymnast. We’re talking tens of thousands of gymnasts graduating from high school every year.
I’d see ridiculously talented women who would either have nothing to do or they would choose to be part of a spirit traditions program, like we have at Baylor. Which is a fantastic opportunity, but it’s not what everybody wants to do. We created [acrobatics and tumbling] to fill that gap. There was no accident there.
People will ask, ‘So the people on your team are not good enough to make collegiate gymnastics teams?’ No, that’s not necessarily the truth. It’s the same skill set, but we look for different things. Our sport is all on the mat, a 2-inch foam-bonded mat. So the skill sets that they’re gonna bring from the four different aparatuses of artistic gymnastics will translate over. But these may be young women that aged out of it, they got burnt out of it, they got too tall. Some didn’t want to do that anymore.
We do not over-recruit with gymnastics. The young women that we’re recruiting are not the same young women. There’s just that much interest out there and that many young women that want to do it.
WACOAN: And then talk about the draw from the cheer side.
Mulkey: Competitive cheer, people argue whether it’s a sport. Who cares if it’s a sport or not; it’s ridiculously athletic.
Our sport has these different positions you can compete in. Folks from cheerleading, some bring tumbling talent. Some don’t tumble at all — they’re bases, they’re lifting everyone else up. Some are tops. The different disciplines bring different skill sets to our sport.
Cheerleading is not considered a sport at the collegiate level, but there are a ton of opportunities to be a cheerleader at the collegiate level. Every school in the country has that. We tell young women, when we’re recruiting, ‘If you want to do sideline, definitely go do that. It’s amazing. We have this great spirit traditions program at Baylor.’ But these women that come into our program from cheer, they just want to compete. They get to come in and showcase their skills in a different way. It’s a completely different format. Instead of just 2 minutes and 30 seconds, they compete for an hour and a half. They compete in different events.
When I’m out recruiting, I will say, ‘These are the opportunities out there for you. They weren’t there 11 years ago.’ There are young women I speak to who say, ‘I really want to be in McLane Stadium, on the sideline.’ And I say, ‘Heck, yes!’ and we high-five, and I send them on their way.
WACOAN: You come from a background of a little bit of both, gymnastics and cheer.
Mulkey: I realized early on I wasn’t going to be Mary Lou Retton. I say that all the time. And my family, honestly, didn’t have a lot of money, and gymnastics can get pretty pricey as you move up and up and up. I tried a little softball, terrible. Basketball, terrible. Ended up becoming a cheerleader, much to my brother’s dismay. What I loved about it was the athletics piece — the flips — and the team piece. This is truly a team sport. That’s what I loved about [cheer]. I was a terrible, terrible cheerleader.
WACOAN: You’ve said, ‘Come to our meets. They will convert you.’
Mulkey: Yes, absolutely. You hear ‘acrobatics and tumbling,’ and you may think, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ But if you come to a meet, you will be entertained. If you have no idea what’s going on, we do our best to educate you. John Morris, he’s on the video prior to each event to explain what’s going on next.
As we were creating the sport, I was at University of Oregon. I’d go and ask our basketball and football coaches [for feedback] because I didn’t want this to be a sport where only gymnastics fans came or only cheerleading fans came. I wanted our football fans to like it, our basketball fans, our Baylor fans, so to speak. I would go and ask, ‘What would you want to see?’ Some of our biggest fans are the coaches from other sports, because if you love athleticism and sport in general you’ll love to come and watch.
I used to poll everyone after every meet, especially when I was at Oregon when we first started: ‘What was your favorite part?’ And the team event at the end, it’s the coup de grâce, everything that you’ve seen in the previous five events, synchronized, set to music, with 24 people on the floor. But they’d go, ‘At the beginning, when people are tumbling together.’ So the most basic tumbling we have, in compulsory. And for whatever reason, if you’re not used to our sport, it’s mesmerizing.
Everyone does love the team event and the tumbling event. The team event has been described to me by fans of other sports as ‘fireworks.’ In the previous five events you get to see all the aspects broken out with small groups. You see how difficult it is to do these skills. Then you see the entire team do it at the end.
WACOAN: Would you describe the six events that make up a meet?
Mulkey: So there are six events, within those are heats, for a total of 20 heats during the meet. It’s real-time scoring.
The first is compulsory, four heats. It’s the basic building blocks of our sport. Every school in the country competes in the exact thing in compulsory: acro, pyramid, toss, tumbling.
Then we start the optional events: The coach can choose based on their team’s strengths and weaknesses in what to compete.
Acro. Three heats with different requirements in each one, between two and four athletes on the floor. It’s so intense. There’s 2,500 sets of eyes on you.
Pyramid. Three heats, different requirements. Five to 24 athletes on the floor. You’re scored based on difficulty, on risk — less people means more difficult.
Toss. I say it’s like diving without water. You launch someone, you twist and flip and land in your base’s arms. One heat is a synchronized toss with 10 people on the floor.
Tumbling. Six heats with three group heats and three individual heats.
Last is team event. Up to 24 people on the floor, everything you’ve seen in the previous five events, synchronized and set to music [a 2 1/2-minute routine]. By that time you’re so excited.
WACOAN: And tumbling is one of Baylor’s strengths, right?
Mulkey: We are a very good tumbling team. I attribute that to my staff. Our strength and conditioning staff, they are the foundation of everything we do. We bring some great talent in, but we also have a village that supports them here. It starts with our athletic performance staff and ends with my assistant coaches, who are fantastic tumbling coaches. I will give them all the credit.
WACOAN: I looked up your assistant coaches. Did you coach both of them? At Oregon and Baylor?
Mulkey: I did. We just added a new assistant coach, Kaelyn Cowan. She just graduated two years ago. I coached her three years [at Baylor]. She was a sophomore when I came in.
Kelsey Rowell, this will be her fifth year with me here. She was on our team at Oregon and graduated from there.
WACOAN: You’ve talked elsewhere about opportunities for women after college to become coaches in this sport, like these two young women.
Mulkey: I don’t think I consciously was excited about that when we started this, but that has been so amazing to watch. I think 78%, maybe 78%-plus of our current coaches are former acrobatics and tumbling student-athletes. They’re in their 20s. We have a young coaching group. How exciting that they now have a career they can follow!
Like with Kaelyn. She was here a couple years, and I knew she’d be a good coach if she wanted to be. This is what she wants her career to be, and it wasn’t there 11 years ago. So I think that’s really cool.
Up until March, 100% of the coaches were female. The head coach at East Stroudsburg University is male gymnast Miles Avery [two-time USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year]. He is so fantastic and so knowledgeable, and we’re so lucky to have him in our ranks.
WACOAN: What advice do you have for a high school athlete considering acrobatics and tumbling?
Mulkey: Go to a camp. I don’t want that to sound like it’s a shameless plug. They can go to a camp at any school and experience acrobatics and tumbling. A lot of times at our camps, that’s what you see — people from all the different disciplines, dipping their toe in the water.
The way we run our camps here, we bring them in and put them on teams, and they learn skills within teams, and the last day they do a mock meet. They get a feel for what it’s like to compete.
There is a recruiting process. Especially at Division I, you get recruited to be part of this sport. Go to TheNCATA.org, and you can find all the member pages of the participating schools. You can go to any of their websites, fill out the recruiting questionnaire, email their coaches and get into their recruiting database and pipeline that way.
WACOAN: It seems like with the sport growing, there would be a lot of opportunities.
Mulkey: Oh yes, so many opportunities. New schools that are adding, they start their rosters at 18-20 spots and build their rosters again that next year, adding 10-15, until they get to around 35-40.
We’ve added six new [collegiate] programs since January 1. We may add three more before the fall. That’s being aggressive, but I think we can do it.
WACOAN: When you won this year’s national championship, John Morris was interviewing you on the floor, with the team. I don’t know if you watched that.
Mulkey: I hate watching myself.
WACOAN: It was pretty great. You grabbed the microphone from J-Mo.
Mulkey: [Laughs.] I thought that I did and texted him after and was like, ‘J-Mo, I think I grabbed the mic from your hand, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.’ And he goes, ‘You were fine.’
WACOAN: It was wonderful because you spoke about opportunities for women. You said, ‘I would ask Baylor Nation, if you see any of our athletes here, give ’em a hug. They’re changing the world. They’re changing the face of college athletics.’
Mulkey: I could cry! [Wipes eyes.] Sorry.
WACOAN: No, it was very emotional.
Mulkey: I’m proud of myself. Wow. I had to take the mic to do it.
Right before the championship we’d had our meeting with the [NCAA] Committee on Women’s Athletics, which later, June 3, resulted in us being an emerging sport. So the entire week was just a lot. We walked out of the meeting, it was a Skype meeting from the Baylor campus. And we walked out, and we were like, ‘There’s nothing else we can do. This is it. If the committee recognizes what we’ve done, it’ll end great. If not, we’ll keep working.’
Of course I’m happy that we won. The sport came full circle. Yes, we won the championship, but at the end of the day, we’re all on the same team.
WACOAN: Was that the first time the championship was held here?
Mulkey: No, the first time was in 2012, when I was at Oregon. We held it here in 2016 too.
WACOAN: How has the crowd changed?
Mulkey: Just continues to grow. The difference in the crowd is the number of people but also the rowdiness. It is energizing.
Our athletic director, Mack Rhoades, was there. He said congratulations, but he was just like, ‘Wow, the crowd!’ You feel it, especially during the team event, the ‘fireworks.’ We definitely got larger crowds, but it’s a more knowledgeable fan base now. They’re not rowdy in a bad way, but more like our 12th man.
WACOAN: On the subject of championships, this is your ninth one to win, and the sport has had nine championships. You’ve won every single one of them.
Mulkey: Four at Oregon and five here. That first year that I was at Oregon, we competed in this format, but the championship was different. University of Maryland won that championship that year, but it wasn’t under the NCATA umbrella. The first for [NCATA] was in 2011, at the University of Oregon.
WACOAN: That feels unprecedented.
Mulkey: Definitely in our sport. I hope it doesn’t cheapen the sport that I continue to win. I want to keep winning, but I also want there to be 100 teams. And then I want to keep winning too.
This five-championship run at Baylor, it’s not easy. I do not take it for granted. Oregon, this year, really gave us a run for our money.
WACOAN: It looked like this year was a lot closer.
Mulkey: It’s so much fun when it’s that close. You think you want to be way out ahead, but it’s more fun to be in those competitive meets. Because of the NCAA [emerging sport designation], I think we’ll see a lot more Division I schools add in the next few years, and it’s gonna get more competitive, and I’m thrilled for that.
WACOAN: You came in 2014, when Baylor recruited you. What did they see that acrobatics and tumbling could add to women’s sports?
Mulkey: There was already a program here, while I was at Oregon. I didn’t actually start it [here]. I’ve known Nancy Post, who was integral in bringing it here, with the previous administration.
What I’ve always loved about Baylor, and one reason I came here, is Baylor is always doing the right things for the right reasons for all of their student-athletes. They looked at the interests and abilities of women on their campus and started a sport that met those interests and abilities. They were pioneers. At the time there were only six schools: Oregon, Baylor, Maryland, Azusa Pacific [University], Quinnipiac [University] and Fairmont State [University].
When I speak, I say, ‘You know Baylor was part of starting this sport, right?’ and they go, ‘Really?’ I don’t know if Baylor Nation thinks of itself as visionary, but they were when it came to acrobatics and tumbling. They’re still setting the standard now.
WACOAN: You told KWTX-TV, ‘The skill set of acrobatics and tumbling is so popular. It’s the most popular skill set in the United States.’ That’s where the 8 million number comes from?
Mulkey: Yes. Gymnastics, like the Olympics, there’s that discipline. But there’s also power tumbling, which is competed internationally. There’s also trampoline, which is an Olympic sport under the gymnastics umbrella. There’s acrobatic gymnastics, which is an internationally competed sport; it’s the Cirque du Soleil-type stuff. It’s ridiculously difficult and beautiful.
All of those disciplines share a similar skill set that feeds into us. Then you add in cheerleading.
People will say, ‘I’m not an acrobat’ or, ‘I can’t tumble.’ But the young women on our team now, some of them are amazing athletes that don’t tumble. You don’t have to have both of those, acrobatics and tumbling. When I’m talking to parents or young athletes, I tell them, ‘When you watch our team, we have about 12 tumblers, but we have 47 people on the team.’ The way we build our roster with different positions that athletes can compete in, that opens the door even more.
WACOAN: This year’s team won a lot of individual honors, including All-American.
Mulkey: This was the first class (the class that just graduated) that we recruited once we got here. Every team before this team was fantastic. I inherited some amazing individuals. But at this point they’d had four full years of us. Our upperclassmen made a huge impact this year.
Our most valuable player [NCATA Most Outstanding Athlete] was Ashley Echelberger. She was also an All-American. This child, I jokingly call her a ninja. She can do anything. She’s so athletic.
Then [NCATA] Specialist of the Year, Joie Hensley. She came in as a tumbler. As a freshman she suffered an injury, and tumbling wasn’t her strength after the injury. She found her niche and became a specialist in the toss event.
Our other All-Americans were Hope Bravo. She’s the sixth in the world, the power tumbler. She’s fantastic.
Kaylee Adams, All-American. She was Specialist of the Year the year prior . Kaylee can do a little bit of everything.
Ceara Gray, All-American. CC doesn’t tumble; she’s a base.
If you look at our All-American group, it shows what the sport’s all about.
WACOAN: You’re passionate about expanding opportunities for female student-athletes. What are some of the benefits for women who participate in college athletics and don’t go on to coaching? Those who do their four years and move on?
Mulkey: These are scholarship opportunities, not full scholarships (we’re an equivalency sport). But the ability to get some financial aid.
They’re learning life skills on my team, they’re learning mental toughness on my team, but when you’re at Baylor, you have this village taking care of your student-athletes, and they’re going through the Baylor Built program, Baylor’s character formation program.
Are you familiar with it?
WACOAN: I am not.
Mulkey: It’s called Baylor Built. It’s our student-athlete development program [launched December 2018]. They really take our student-athletes, and every tool they’ll need when they graduate, they provide them with. From balancing a checkbook, to what kind of insurance do you get, to networking, to how to get a job, to character formation, to conflict management. I’m barely scratching the surface.
I was lucky enough to be on the committee that was part of creating it. I don’t think I helped at all, but I’m lucky to be in the room with these smart people. It’s Baylor-specific. I can’t imagine it being any better to be a student-athlete at any other school. There is this group of people behind all of our teams, making their lives better. There’s academic support. You learn time management through this because it’s such a commitment [to be a student-athlete]. There are some valuable life skills learned through college athletics, and Baylor does a great job of that.
WACOAN: You seem to have a lot of energy.
Mulkey: Thanks, I don’t feel like I do today.
I spoke at the NCAA Women Coaches Academy a few weeks ago. They just had class No. 48. You can’t go unless you’re an NCAA coach, and we were not an NCAA sport yet. And I was asked this year to be on faculty, so that was a bucket list item. I spoke on team culture.
I was emailing with the director, who said, ‘We have this clip of you. Would you mind if we use this later on?’ I was talking about how it was on my bucket list to go to the Women Coaches Academy — I was telling that story to the group. It’s a funny clip, but that’s why I have to be careful with my energy because you never know. Everyone has an iPhone these days.
I had a blast. I met so many great friends with so much great energy and a lot of passion.
WACOAN: What is the outlook for your team’s upcoming season? Does it start in November?
Mulkey: Competitive season is February 1 through end of April. Fall training starts in October, for practice, but they’re lifting weights immediately. We have 47 people on the team, 11-12 are juniors and seniors, some really strong leaders. The rest are freshmen and sophomores — they’re the excitement. It’s so contagious. I can’t wait for them to get here.
People say it’s a rebuilding year, but we don’t even think about it that way. It’s gonna be so much fun because they’re so excited to be Baylor Bears. We recruit talent for sure, but we recruit athletes that fit at Baylor, fit into our program and our mission. We are so thrilled with the team we’re gonna have this year.
FIVE THINGS FELECIA CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
2. Reading glasses (That’s only happened in the last year.)
3. Cross-body purse. Has to be hands free.
4. Wiener dogs. Can I say that? I’m obsessed with dachshunds.
5. My water bottle, constantly every day. W